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The Woodsman. 2004. Directed by Nicole Kassell. Screenplay by Kassell & Steven Fechter; based on the play by Fechter.
Starring Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Eve, Mos Def, David Alan Grier, Michael Shannon, & Benjamin Bratt. Dash Films/Lee Daniels Entertainment.
Rated 14A. 87 minutes.
Films concerning the themes of child abuse and paedophilia can either sensationalize things too much, be far too graphic, or they can simply miss the mark on saying anything worthwhile on the subject. Recently, a Danish film called For My Brother went hard at the topic, and while it was a solid film there were times it cut to the bone, hard. There’s also Asia Argento’s feature film The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, which wades into crazy territory, and perhaps touches a little too close to home at times for some to be completely comfortable watching.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is The Woodsman. On the outside what may appear as a star-laden cast, headed by the real life couple and wonderful actors Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, is actually on the inside a difficult and compelling work of cinema which attempts to cut through the stigma and the rhetoric concerning sex offenders, hoping to offer not a solution but a view into the world of one of these men.
And let’s get it straight – director Nicole Kassell, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Steven Fechter whose play serves as the basis for the film, is not attempting in any way to glorify sex crimes or child abuse, nor is it working towards painting paedophiles in a sympathetic light. However, the story tries to give us a view into the world of a truly repentant man, albeit one that is confused and still unsure of what his life means, what is his true purpose, how he’s finally able to break through the barrier and become a normal person; if that is even possible. No answers are given here, though questions are asked. In the end, the main question Kassell and Fechter bring up is about the nature of redemption, if that’s attainable for men like Walter (Bacon), as well as whether society – despite its laws and guise if wanting to rehabilitate criminals – really allows these people a second chance. The answers, as I mentioned, do not come in any concrete form, and we shouldn’t expect them to either. Most of all, The Woodsman points out there are flaws in the way we do things, as a society, as concerned citizens, as personal critics, co-workers, cops, bosses, every role in between. Although, never do Kassell and Fechter let the reality of these crimes escape us, even in the film’s most empathetic/sympathetic moments. For all these things, this is an honest and raw story.
The strength of this film is built on Bacon’s performance. This is the role which carries all of the thematic weight. Not an easy performance to undertake. Many actors would probably have an aversion to these types of characters. Again, the writing and the execution in unison do not try to humanize paedophiles. On the contrary, Walter is presented as someone with troubling issues stemming out of childhood, a man that may not necessarily be a true child molester but one whose early sexual experiences shaped his adult sexuality in a damaging way. He is not some career paedophile, yet still, he is guilty. He is culpable in full for his crime, and never does the character evade responsibility. In fact, Bacon brings out the self-hatred of Walter. The disgust he feels for himself and his thoughts is always prevalent, coming out at times to cause him difficulty. Better still, Bacon is able to present Walter with compassion that doesn’t fall into trying to make him likeable – simply, we watch his struggle, and we see how his past informs every last moment of his present. Without an actor like Bacon this character could easily feel as if it were pandering. Instead, his depth gives Walter life and in a tough movie, filled to the brim with tough ideas and characters and dialogue and themes, this sort of performance is ultra important to its success.
Around Walter are some other interesting characters, not the least of which is Vicki (Sedgwick). Her character is just as compelling as Walter. Her own personal history with abuse plays into part of him and his experiences. In part, Vicki represents a way forward for him. Walter starts to see some of the effects, later in life, on those people that experienced sexual abuse first hand, and in a sense this offers perspective. Also, Vicki is another sense of redemption, in that he finds a normal relationship (both emotionally and sexually) with her and sees some way out of the rut in which he sits. She is a sense of possibility.
On the other side is Sgt. Lucas (Mos Def). He embodies the often hypocritical aspect of law enforcement, which at once essentially says there’s a possibility of rehabilitation (the fact we sentence people then let them free after a certain point suggests we believe this is possible as a society), and in opposition automatically (and perpetually) condemns offenders. Police are meant to remain objective, which is part of how they’re meant to emotionally stand back from the crimes and serve justice, whatever that means from case to case. Lucas does nothing except believe he’s waiting for Walter to reoffend, to sexually abuse a young girl and go back to prison, right where he sees him as belonging. Lucas is an interesting character and Mos Def does solid work with his performance, both calling to mind our own prejudices and thoughts as concerned citizens, as well as pointing out how the law is not always impartial and justice sometimes has too big of an eyeball instead of remaining blind.
Furthermore, the side plot of Candy (Kevin Rice) is perhaps the most poignant aspect of the screenplay. While the other characters surrounding Walter allow us a window into how sex offenders rehabilitate amongst the community, family, how they manage (if they ever do) to connect with people, Candy is a perspective on self-hatred and how Walter abhors himself, his actions, his crimes. SPOILER AHEAD: for instance, when Walter tracks down Candy and beats him, for a split second you can see him punching his own face in place of Candy, showing the hate he has for himself inside. This doesn’t excuse Walter of ANYTHING. Not at all, he gets no free ride for his crimes. What it does is illustrate, in conjunction with his meeting the little girl in her red coat, how someone like Walter may actually feel remorse, despite their urges, and that SOME offenders like him genuinely want to change.
There are many tough things to swallow in The Woodsman, most significantly its overall premise. However, with the subtle performance of Bacon in the lead role and the writing of Kassell and Fechter, this film reaches its destination. It will never reach everybody, though those it does reach will be affected, in many ways. You will not be compelled to feel sorry for paedophiles. This is not the aim of this movie. Though, you will start to feel as if there are other perspectives, other views on the subject, and Bacon may even make you feel sorry for this particular character. Certainly not going to appeal to everyone, maybe a small minority of viewers with open enough minds to watch something out of their wheelhouse. The main thing I can promise is that this is not an explicit or graphic film. It is respectful, subdued. The Woodsman takes on its nearly impossible plots and main story with a grace that is not often seen with these types of movies. For that alone it deserves to be seen, and as far as I’m concerned, I’ll say this to my dying days, Bacon was robbed of a nomination at the Oscars (and all other awards) for his multi-faceted performance as Walter.
For Min Brors Skyld (English title: For My Brother). 2014. Directed & Written by Brian Bang.
Starring Elias Munk, Christopher Friis Jensen, Allan Karlsen, Frank Schiellerup, Oliver Bjørnholdt Spottag, Tina Nørby, Frederik Ingemann Brandt, Lara León, Marie Louise Lund Jensen, Kit Langberg Rasmussen, William Gaarde, Robin Koch, Oliver Skou, Dorte Evalyn Evon, & Tobias Hyttel. Bang Entertainment.
Not Rated. 117 minutes.
Before getting into this review, I have to state the following.
TRIGGER WARNING: this movie contains several graphic scenes of sexual abuse and rape, as well as implicit and explicitly implied situations of incest, et cetera. PLEASE, if you have an aversion to any of this, turn back. And certainly don’t watch the film.
First time writer-director Brian Bang (also serving as cinematographer, producer, locations scout, editor, casting director) has come on strong with his feature For Min Brors Skyld, which I’ll refer to from here on in by its English title, For My Brother.
This is an excruciating look at the life two young brothers live saddled only with their father, their mother having died seven years before. Their father is an abusive man, both physically and sexually, and he also allows a friend of his to molest his oldest son in return for money. The oldest boy takes care of the youngest, sheltering him from the life he’s been forced into by his father. Right from the start we’re aware of the abuse. Unlike an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit or some typical drama tackling the subject, we’re never kept in the dark. And that’s part of why Bang’s feature is so brutally effective, even though it occasionally steps in too deep for its own good.
With a movie like this there’s often a headlong dive into sensationalism, as people become aware of the abuse and either revenge or justice starts to work its magic. However, Bang keeps us rooted in the experience of the boys, and this is what sets it apart from similar projects. Yes, it is often hard to watch, especially when the graphic qualities jump out at you during various scenes. Despite that, our immersion in the perspective of the older brother Aske (Elias Munk) particularly is how Bang manages to keep us interested and still watching after the plot turns nastier than nasty. There are a couple moments I’m not sure of, in the sense of morality and also writing. On the whole, For My Brother is a psychologically harrowing piece of cinema, and also with its reality takes upon itself the role of showing viewers just how hopeless, never ending, horrific the sexual abuse of children really is, never pulling any punches and never once keeping the gloves on.
This sort of stuff always hits close to home for me. I don’t particularly enjoy sitting through any sexual assault scenes, in any film. Funny enough, Irréversible is an amazing movie, as is the original Wes Craven The Last House on the Left. Yet I still have to fast forward through the former’s infamous scene, and take no pleasure in the latter’s either. However, when these types of scenes or themes involve children, that’s tough to take. Any person in their right mind would feel that way, especially if they’ve been close to abuse or have been abused themselves. Ultimately, I feel what Bang does here with his story is not exploitative. We do in fact see a few graphic moments, one sees a bunch of men holding Aske down as he’s blindfolded, taking turns raping him. In fact if you can make through the initial scene, you’re not likely to turn away. Bang opens with an event that’s traumatizing. There’s nothing aggressive happening, other than emotionally aggressive, yet the impact is lasting. You’ll be revolted so quick, so hard and fast that moving forward will certainly be questionable for many. Worse than that his mother dies after being hit by a car. Not only is it sad anyway, but she is the one lifeline that Aske had, now that’s gone. So you almost feel like you’re on the verge of Dante’s Inferno, rimming a Circle of Hell, as the mother dies and unwillingly must leave her son in the hands of his paedophile father. Horrifying to begin a film. If you hang after the first 15 minutes, the rest (mostly) isn’t as bad.
For My Brother expresses the inescapable feeling abused children feel, that they continue to feel. Often people wonder how someone, once they’re older, can go on letting things happen, or at the very least go on without telling of what’s already happened before. It’s because of the cycle, the systemic degradation and humiliation of a young person by the abuse. Here, it’s twofold, as Aske’s father Lasse (Allan Karlsen) has pimped him out to others since the boy was young, also taking his turn, too. So after years and years, especially as a male being raped by his own father, the desire to stay silent is stronger. Like any other behaviour, the sex in all forms is completely routine. In opposition, sex is also warped. Much as Aske wants to be with a girl he can’t seem to get the job done, at least not right away. A young girl flips on him for not immediately getting an erection, so worse now is the shame. At this point in the film, Aske tells his close friend in a rage. Not all victims will even tell anybody. Many only find their greatest shame discovered after people find out somehow, and if it’s an ongoing thing it could go on forever. That’s the unfortunate point Bang gets across as a writer.
Without spoiling the end, this movie is grim through and through. There are only slight glimmers of hope. These come when the brothers are together. This is why the film has its title. Aske not only tries to protect his brother (as in “I take the abuse for my brother”), he likewise keeps living because his brother is the sole bright spot in his life (as in “I only live but for my brother”). Moreover, the actor that plays Aske – Elias Munk – does a fantastic job. It’s hard to play a role like this, as it can easily descend into melodrama. Coupled with the ultra realistic style of Bang’s direction, Munk makes the character feel real. He is complex. He is tortured, but also has a light and foolish side that comes out with his brother. Seeing him deal with the brutal life his father forces upon him is emotional, you’ll probably find a tear or two ready to form, if they don’t full on fall. Similar to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s performance in Mysterious Skin, Munk plays this edgy, tough role with grace and power. I’ll definitely be seeking out other films he’s in to watch him again.
I have to mention Frank Schiellerup playing the hideous pervert Hans. Basically, he’s the villain of the movie. Alongside the father, of course. From the beginning he is a terrifying presence in Aske’s life. Once the boy’s mother dies you can almost feel the guy ready to crawl all over him like a serpent on its prey. There is something eerie about him and so I have to give credit to Schiellerup. He makes Hans into a proper monster.
This is not a movie I’ll recommend. If you’re brave enough, go ahead. It undeniably does have a message. Don’t let anybody tell you that it’s gratuitous for the sake of being harsh. For all its nastiness, it could easily have been nastier. Absolutely. There is a slight, if barely visible hint of restraint. Either way, For My Brother does not sugar coat any of its subject matter. It also doesn’t offer any hope. Not saying this is a requirement. Not all stories are the same. Though it’s notably admirable for a film to try spearheading a raw, honest depiction of child abuse. While there are plenty elements which could’ve been executed better (the score mainly did nothing except detract from the realistic style), Brian Bang does pretty good for his first feature, and again, commendable to take on such a controversial, difficult topic as he does. Here’s to more hard looks at the tough corners in life. Bang will hopefully do something else gritty next time, looking into a different pocket of our fucked up world.
David Slade's HARD CANDY is a tough walk over a thin line of morality
A man tracks down the one who brutally hurt his daughter.