The grim little green-walled apartment where Walter finds himself after his release has the look of a jail cell — with one apparent easement. What seems to be the only window in the place faces a school playground across the street. When Walter looks outside, he often sees kids running and jumping; he hears their innocent shouts and happy laughter. But we are soon let in on a dramatic irony. The jittery, painfully quiet protagonist of The Woodsman is no run-of-the-mill parolee. He’s a convicted pedophile with a lingering taste for preteen girls, so for him the playground is not a vision of hope but a source of torment and a reminder of his sordid past. He has spent twelve years behind bars, but his imprisonment is not over. It’s just taken a new form.
Anchored by a carefully studied, thoroughly compelling performance by a somber Kevin Bacon, this is a movie of many parts, socially and politically speaking. First-time writer and director Nicole Kassell gives us neither a stern cautionary tale about the predators among us, nor a hand-wringing plea for sympathy. In tackling a touchy subject, Kassell looks at Walter not as a case study but as a single human being under tremendous pressures, internal and external, and in the process she stirs us to examine our own fears and prejudices. Hard-liners convinced that the justice system is infected with devious defense attorneys and permissive judges probably won’t want to go anywhere near The Woodsman, just as they don’t want to share the planet with anybody convicted of a sex crime. People interested in the mysteries of obsession will find it disquieting — at least.
A recent NYU Film School graduate, Kassell boldly proposed filming the story after seeing an off-Broadway production of the Steven Fechter play on which it’s based. Leery of taking on a young, first-time director, Fechter relented when Kassell showed uncommon insight and writing skill; if the film version of The Woodsman has a few touches of post-adolescent melodrama (the Little Red Riding Hood references seem a bit broad), they in no way compromise a very disturbing, beautifully made movie.
Fresh from his overshadowed performance in star-loaded Mystic River, Bacon has the screen largely to himself here, and he uses the opportunity to show us a man isolated in barren surroundings — disowned by family, ostracized by most of his co-workers at a Philadelphia lumber yard, and badgered by a suspicious police detective (rapper Mos Def, also a gifted actor) who sees him as vermin, at least until the plot takes an interesting turn. Looking lean and severe, Bacon pulls off a neat trick by building around himself an ex-con’s shield of wary privacy while giving us frequent glimpses of Walter’s demons. The most unsettling thing about this unsettling protagonist is that we never know if his higher instincts or those demons will win the struggle for his soul. “I’m adjusting okay,” he reports to his court-ordered therapist. “Okay” is about right.
Walter’s only allies in his uphill battle are a streetwise brother-in-law, Carlos (Benjamin Bratt), his boss at the lumber yard, and a tough-talking, hard-shelled fellow employee, Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick), who picks up on something wounded and vulnerable behind his silence — probably because she has some rough history of her own. Their affair has a raw desperation in it that touches you deep down. That Bacon and Sedgwick are happily married offscreen does nothing to diminish that effect; on the contrary, we sense that these two know the possibilities in relationships — good and bad.
As movie taboos go, this one is pretty powerful. Even long-term penitentiary inmates who’ve seen and done it all have a special animus for “short eyes” — the crime of child sexual abuse — and it took plenty of guts for producer Lee Daniels to take on this project. But he has shown courage before: He also produced Monster’s Ball. The only other recent film I’ve seen out on The Woodsman‘s edge is Michael Cuesta’s L.I.E. (2001), in which Brian Cox played, pretty sympathetically and without caricature, a middle-aged ex-Marine with his eye on a troubled fifteen-year-old boy. Moral absolutists hated that picture, just as they hate Kinsey. But The Woodsman will likely need no controversy or any extended debate in the op-ed pages to ensure its success: This portrait of a pedophile at war with himself is at once so thoughtful and provocative that we cannot help but become engrossed in his agonies. For Bacon, this is a dramatic triumph. For us, it’s the vision of a soul divided in torment, a tale as ambiguous as it is fascinating.