Choice performances help clarify the murky, subtle tale of The Woodsman
Despite a career-peak performance by Kevin Bacon as a child molester trying to make a new life after 12 years in prison, any lasting value of Nicole Kassell’s The Woodsman evaporates under scrutiny, due to a central retrogressive evasion. Or, of you’re feeling less charitable, a lie.
It ignores the fact that monsters like Bacon’s character, Walter, aren’t born bad—they’re made that way by other abusers. As cover-up, Kassell—who wrote the film’s screenplay with Steven Fechter—layers on secondhand gravitas by steeping her film in distracting, faux-gritty ’70s-indie stylistics. The Woodsman ultimately offers up nothing more complicated than a grown-up bad seed—which implies a fate-based inability to change. Which in turn halts the film’s sole wheel of tension: Will Walter change?
Admittedly, Kassell has taken on an ambitious goal in humanizing and making sympathetic a repeat child rapist. But she cheats by never telling us just what Walter did to his victims, to say nothing of including sympathy-erasing flashbacks of the children’s lives he ruined. When he says, “I never hurt them,” it’s unclear whether this is some weird joke or an indication of pathological denial Walter never displays again.
Kassell introduces Walter just after he’s been released from prison, into some blighted part of Philadelphia where all the bars play the vintage funk favored by those ’70s films the director is trying to emulate. He gets a job cutting wood.
He lives in a jail cell-like apartment conveniently located next to a junior high school. Estranged from his sister, his only company is provided by visits from an oddly accepting in-law (Benjamin Bratt) and a cop (Mos Def) who is convinced of Walter’s impending recidivism. Kyra Sedgwick, meanwhile, does praiseworthy work for her almost believable Vickie, who not only beds Walter but, after learning of his past, asks him to move in with her.
We learn that Vickie was repeatedly raped as a child, and the implication is that, by learning of her past, Walter will have to confront the consequences of his behavior. Kassell seems to suggest that, by sleeping with a surrogate for her abusers, Vickie is enacting a sort of by-proxy act of forgiveness, but Kassell prefers the safety of underwriting in favor of clarity. The director also could be a punishment glutton.
To wit, Walter’s self-loathing is made visceral via his window-view watching of another predator hanging around the school and tempting kids with treats. Unfortunately, he’s a bug-eyed B-movie freak of the Wings Hauser school. Walter finally meets a preteen girl (Hannah Pilkes) who fulfills his pathology specs, and we get a neat turn of dramatic justice when it turns out that she’s also an abuse victim. What happens next is the film’s one absolutely disturbing act of honesty, and probably the reason for the film’s widespread kudos.
The Woodsman does possess a lasting, haunting quality, the source of which is Bacon himself. The actor knows how to work the paradox of his own physicality: The actor’s features have aged, but the all-American boyishness remains. Most of the time, he seems to be collapsing in on himself in his fight for self-control—when he unleashes the old, winning Bacon smile, you feel relief that he’s finally feeling some relief. But the director and actor choose to unleash this smile only when he’s in the company of desired children. On-screen for only minutes at a time but matching Bacon and Sedgwick is Mos Def as the rehabilitation-leery Sgt. Lucas. Def deftly re-purposes his MC skills to create a character that imparts entire suggested texts with a weirdly lilted phrase or an unexpected tonal downturn of a single word.
There’s no doubt that Kassell has a way with actors and, in her derivative way, with composition and tone. But vagueness isn’t a virtue. By safely ignoring the collateral damage of Walter’s past, she lowers the ante of his redemption, leaving the source of his terrible urges—and how they will play out in the future—not so much disturbingly inexplicable as simply avoided.