"Woodsman" paints unflinching portrait of a pariah
Seattle Times movie critic
There are no easy answers — in fact, no answers at all — in "The Woodsman," Nicole Kassell's disturbing, beautifully acted drama about a pedophile trying to begin a new life. The film does not ask us to sympathize with Walter (Kevin Bacon), who has served 12 years in prison after being convicted of molesting a young girl, but it does ask us to try to understand him, and to walk for an hour and a half in his worn shoes. It's a grim journey, and one many audiences members may understandably decline to take.
But those with the stomach for this film (note that no abuse of children is depicted; the "sexuality" cited in the R rating is between consenting adults), "The Woodsman" offers some fine performances and restrained direction from a promising newcomer. Kassell, a first-time feature filmmaker, shows confidence and some lovely instincts. The film's end credits roll over Patti LaBelle's soulful rendition of "His Eye Is On the Sparrow"; it's performed a cappella but has the strength of a swelling orchestra, easing us out of the gray story and into full-colored beauty again.
Bacon, as Walter, looks pinched and cold; his mouth seems perpetually set into a hard line. He lives in a scummy, algae-blue apartment in a working-class neighborhood (the city is never named; it could be anywhere) and works in a lumberyard, where he meets Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick), a spitfire with blond curls and an eye for this odd loner. They fall into a relationship, and eventually into bed, knowing little about each other — until Vickie initiates a conversation, playful at its start, about the worst thing they've ever done. She: "My best friend's husband." He: "I molested little girls." Her face, with its happy-clown smile, fades into horror.
Other characters touch the periphery of Walter's solitary life, with varying attitudes toward him. A police officer (Mos Def) makes no attempt to hide his contempt, spitting casually into the sink at Walter's apartment. His brother-in-law Carlos (Benjamin Bratt) walks a delicate line; visiting, trying to broker a reconciliation between Walter and his sister, making it clear that while he despises Walter's crime, he still recognizes the person he once knew. And, in a harrowing scene, Walter meets an 11-year-old girl named Robin (Hannah Pilkes) in a park, and their subsequent conversation reveals a great deal about them both.
As a movie, "The Woodsman" is its own worst enemy; any attempt it makes to present Walter as a soul worthy of understanding and redemption comes whisper-close to brushing aside his crime. And while he claims to not be a monster — and while Vickie clearly sees "something good" in him — a few of his lines are thoroughly chilling. (Telling Vickie of his crimes, he insists, "I never hurt them." Do the screenwriters really intend for him to not understand that pain comes in many forms? Would this genuinely have not come up in his rehabilitation?)
Bacon, in a role that feels like the melancholy flip side of the character played by Tim Robbins in "Mystic River" (in which Bacon also starred), never flinches; while little actually happens in "The Woodsman," a world has come and gone in his weary eyes. By the end, Walter seems to realize the impact of what he's done, and the time it will take to move on — but, like us, he has no answers.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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