Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees is wowed by Kevin Bacon's performance in this stark yet compassionate film.
"I'm not a monster."—Walter
The Woodsman is a remarkably brave film. Based on the play by Stephen Fechter, it puts us in the shoes of a child molester (Kevin Bacon, Mystic River) as he tries to build a normal life. Instead of depicting the character as thoroughly vile, it emphasizes his humanity, in essence showing us that pedophiles are people too. Anchored by a breathtaking performance by Bacon, The Woodsman is a moving and thought-provoking character study.
Facts of the Case
After 12 years in prison for molesting little girls, Walter (Bacon) sets about rebuilding his life. A family friend (David Alan Grier, In Living Color) gives him a job at a lumberyard, he gets an apartment of his own, and he sees his therapist regularly. His brother-in-law (Benjamin Bratt, Miss Congeniality) proves to be a loyal friend, even though Walter's own sister still refuses to see him. He even attracts the notice of a tough but sexy coworker (Kyra Sedgwick, Bacon's real-life wife) and begins a relationship with her. But the reminders of his past are everywhere: in the suspicious cop who periodically invades his apartment (Mos Def, Monster's Ball), in the insinuations of his therapist, in the playground across the street where another molester (Kevin Rice) lies in wait for little boys. Walter's past finally erupts into his workplace as well, when a worried coworker (Eve, Barbershop) spreads the word of his criminal record. With so many forces conspiring to make Walter feel like a monster, he'll have an even harder time resisting the temptations that still afflict him.
Producer Lee Daniels can't be accused of taking the easy way. After the success of his Monster's Ball, he could have chosen a safe, mainstream project; instead, he took on a first-time director, Nicole Kassell, and a film whose subject scared just about everybody who came in contact with it. (In the featurette on the making of the film, Daniels reports that during the filming he received a boxed rat for Christmas—a gesture he took to reflect the sentiments of the people of Philadelphia, where The Woodsman was filmed.) But the shock value of The Woodsman lies in its sympathy for its central character, not in any overt behavior or imagery; at the same time, however, it doesn't try to make us like pedophiles, but simply to see them as human beings, however flawed.
I didn't come into The Woodsman with a lot of knowledge about pedophilia; frankly, it's not a subject I've ever felt a need to explore. So the depiction of Walter, and of the system that in some senses fails him, was truly eye-opening for me. Like many people, I tend to think of pedophiles as monsters rather than fairly ordinary human beings with one area of aberration, so the character of Walter—which was rooted in the director-cowriter's extensive research into the psychology and treatment of pedophiles—was a wake-up call. Here's a man who has a sense of right and wrong (in all but one area), who feels the same affront to his dignity that we would if a police officer routinely barged in to bully us whenever he felt like it, who responds with horror when another character reveals that she was abused by a family member. In one of many powerful scenes, when his therapist assumes that he molested his sister and tries to force him into admitting it, we see Walter's eyes fill with furious tears at the idea. Astonishingly, Walter is in many ways a decent man. He's also trying to become normal, to overcome his tendencies. But he doesn't get a lot of help in this area from the system, which, as represented by Sergeant Lucas (Mos Def), simply assumes he'll molest again. "I don't know why we keep letting freaks like you out on the street," says Lucas. "It just means we gotta catch you all over again."
The thing is, of course, that Lucas is right. Many sex offenders do "re-offend," to use director Nicole Kassell's neutral term. Lucas's distrust of Walter is rooted in his own experiences as a cop, not in prejudice or paranoia. Walter's coworker Mary-Kay (Eve), whose suspicions are aroused when Walter rebuffs her friendly overtures, is also right in a way when she says "People have a right to know" in defense of having exposed him. At the same time, the film makes us realize that the current means of protecting the public from sex offenders can take a terrible toll on those who may be making a genuine effort to overcome their aberrant impulses. There isn't an easy answer here—and the film doesn't suggest that there is—but it definitely alerts us to the complications and moral dilemmas involved in the re-integration of offenders into society after they have served their sentences.
Kevin Bacon's performance, the core of the film, is masterly. Walter is a quiet, inward-turning character; both literally and figuratively, he keeps his head down and tries to fade into the background. When he does have dialogue, it's usually carefully neutral; we can assume that 12 years of prison life have schooled Walter in being impassive. It's mostly his pinched, haggard face that tells us what Walter's feeling, and the moments when Bacon shows us Walter's anguish or yearning squeeze at the heart. The screenplay also helps us to see Walter's humanity by making some careful omissions: Walter doesn't talk in detail about his past crimes, or how he felt when committing them. We also never learn what event precipitated Walter's pathology. He's trying to look ahead, so that's where we are invited to look as well, instead of dwelling on the things that make us despise him. There are moments, though, when cold seeps into our stomach as we see his warped perspective asserting itself, so the film can't be accused of soft-pedaling Walter's nature. Overall, the film offers us a greater understanding of men like Walter, in their surprising complexity, yet never becomes obvious or pedantic.
Out of the many powerful scenes in the film, probably the one with the most dramatic impact takes place between Walter and a little girl named Robin (Hannah Pilkes). It's a pivotal scene for Walter, since we know he will either give in to his urges or overcome them. The moment-by-moment play of emotion on Bacon's face is astonishing; he makes himself completely exposed. First-time actress Hannah Pilkes is also remarkable here, creating a well-developed character in her relatively brief screen time. The result is a scene of great delicacy yet great emotional power. I found that the extended version, included among the extras, was even more satisfying emotionally, but in her commentary director Kassell makes a strong case for editing the scene down to its present form.
The other performances are excellent as well. I'm not a follower of Kyra Sedgwick (Phenomenon), and I often find her downright irritating, but she nails her role as Vicki. Sedgwick dispenses with glamour and convinces us she's a lumber worker, as tough as they come, holding her own alongside the men she works with. Yet she has a well-hidden nurturing side, which is part of what draws her to Walter. In one crucial scene we discover that events in her own past have opened her up to the possibility that men like Walter are more than just the sum of their crimes. Sedgwick's performance stands out for its subtlety and authenticity. Similarly, Mos Def offers us an unusually complex take on the jaded cop, showing us the compassionate and philosophical sides of a man who's seen too much. David Alan Grier and Eve prove that they can hold their own in drama as well as comedy, and Benjamin Bratt makes a striking foil for Walter with his vivid charisma and relaxed, outgoing demeanor.
Like the character of Walter, the film as a whole is muted, restrained. From its grey, dreary palette to the cool, almost minimalist musical score by Nathan Larson, it unfolds quietly. These artistic decisions have great cumulative effect on the story, but they also make it trickier to assess the audiovisual quality of the transfer. As a dialogue-driven film with pared-down music, it doesn't really exercise the DTS or 5.1 audio tracks; nevertheless, the sound works well to create subtle effects like the presence of birds (a frequent metaphor) and the use of abrupt silences to convey Walter's state of mind. The visual transfer shows some speckling, which is unexpected in a brand-new film, but otherwise presents the distinctive look of the film consistently and without visual interference.
The extras are modest but do contribute to the film's impact. Director Kassell's commentary demands some patience; her measured, quiet narration tends to dwell mostly on technical aspects of the production, especially in its early stages, but if you stick with her she does offer some illuminating information on the film's reflection of her research, her interpretation of certain scenes and characters, and the points she was trying to make. She also discusses influences on the visual style of The Woodsman and the use of symbols in the film. In the five-minute "Getting It Made" featurette, producer Lee Daniels discusses how the film came about. The deleted and extended scenes number only three, but their presence shows us other (often less subtle and more predictable) directions the film could have taken.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It must have taken considerable courage for the actors in this film to take on so controversial a project, and I feel that the disc is incomplete in failing to give us a glimpse into their experience. In particular, an interview with Bacon seems mandatory. Although the director commentary gives us secondhand knowledge of some of the cast's feelings about their roles, the lack of firsthand perspectives is frustrating.
Fritz Lang's masterpiece M still startles audiences with the impassioned monologue by the character of the child murderer, who tries to convince his accusers that he is the victim of his own impulses. In its own quiet way, The Woodsman is like a sequel to that speech. It's unnerving to be invited to feel pity for a child molester, but by coming to a greater understanding of these offenders, perhaps it's possible to improve the system that protects us from them, and protects them from themselves.
The court can't be sure that Walter is a reformed character, but The Woodsman is declared not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Nicole Kassell
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