Sunday, July 03, 2005
Movie Review: "The Woodsman"
Starring Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Eve, Mos Def, David Allan Grier and Benjamin Bratt
Directed by Nicole Kassell
Having been on the acting scene for nearly three decades, Kevin Bacon has been a seemingly constant presence in movies, even having a game (Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon) tied to his long filmography. Having more than held his own against Oscar-winners Sean Penn and Tim Robbins in 2003's "Mystic River," Bacon's understated and complex portrayal of a convicted sex offender is the heart and soul of "The Woodsman."
Portraying a man just released from a 12-year jail sentence, Walter (Bacon) is looking to start a new life, but has no friends and only one family member, brother-in-law Carlos (Benjamin Bratt), who will have anything to do with him. He finds employment at a lumberyard, but keeps his distance from everyone there, with the exception of Vicki (Kyra Sedgwick), a forklift operator. She senses he has personal demons, but also believes he has a caring personality.
The two quickly bond, but Walter's dark past is a seemingly constant threat at crushing his delicately established present. Living in an apartment across from a school playground – the only landlord that would accept rent from him, he explains – certainly doesn't help matters. He also has to have counseling sessions and a local detective (Mos Def, in a solid performance) makes frequent unannounced visits, hoping and fully expecting Walter to go back to his old ways.
What the film makes abundantly clear, largely through the strength of Bacon's performance, is that Walter did not emerge from prison a rehabilitated man. Sure, he might have emerged as a different man, but the sexual urges that got him into trouble in the first place still exist. He recognizes that what landed him in jail was wrong, yet rationalizes that he never hurt his victims. We are left to believe that he is speaking of a physical kind of hurt, and it's only in a later scene at a park that he is faced with a decision that questions that rationale.
The aforementioned scene really serves as the pivotal moment in the entire movie and is an uncomfortable, yet wonderfully performed sequence. For that matter, the movie's material on the whole is a bit uncomfortable, as its central character is after all a pedophile. There is a lot to be said about the strength and conviction of Bacon and first-time director Nicole Kassell for tackling such a difficult and uncompromising project. Together, they have to walk a tightrope, crafting a character who has a horrible part of his past, yet is legitimately trying to carve out a normal life. One scene even has Walter asking his therapist, "When will I be normal?"
"The Woodsman" provides no easy answer to that question, as the definition of normal can vary wildly from one person to the other.
Made on a shoestring budget, with a strong cast working for next to nothing, the film will certainly have a polarizing effect on audiences, as some will simply have no desire to see a movie centered on a convicted pedophile. But the film makes efforts to not paint Walter as a character seeking sympathy or even understanding, just as someone who isn't a monster and will struggle with his demons every day of his life.
That said, there's probably only so far the film could go with the material to keep it watchable, yet maintain an emotional pull. Still, Walter is portrayed as a cold and distant person, keeping the viewer at bay, with little mentioned of his pre-prison life. Plus, the inclusion of a character that frequents the playground who Walter identifies as a predator feels undeveloped and tacked on.
Some may argue for the need to have such a movie exist, but with so many movies centering around and practically paying fetishistic tribute to serial killers, the brave performances and straightforward storytelling of "The Woodsman" feels necessary. The fact that it got made at all in these times in which we live would appear to be a true accomplishment.
(Rated R for sexuality, disturbing behavior and language.)