The Woodsman

Watching The Woodsman is a highly uncomfortable experience, and that is exactly what first time writer/director Nicole Kassell wants. This is a remarkably assured debut from Kassell, which touches upon a very taboo topic - pedophiles. L.I.E., the last film to deal with the same topic, was slapped with the then-dreaded NC-17 rating and disappeared quickly from theaters. The main difference this time is that The Woodsman (based on the play by Steven Fetcher) has Kevin Bacon, a star with a much higher profile than Brian Cox. Bacon initially seems like an odd choice. He is best known for his boyishly handsome looks and his pretty conventional movies. However, what most people don't realize is that over the years, Bacon (In the Cut, Mystic River) has selected his roles carefully, amassing quite an impressive and varied resume. The one downside is that sometimes the quality of his films are all over the place.

Bacon's performance as Walter is powerful because it is so ambiguous. Walter is free after spending twelve years in prison for molesting young girls, but Kassell never lets on if he is genuinely reformed. Calling him the protagonist of the film is not quite correct, since it is never clear if Walter is a good man or not. Impressively, Bacon's performance causes one to feel some sympathy towards him, even when it is obvious he may still be a monster. This is where The Woodsman is at its best. It is right to feel sympathy towards somebody like Walter, especially if one is unsure about his ulterior motivations? At one point, he confides to his therapist that he followed a boy. The therapist offers that maybe Walter was testing his limits, but there is no definite response. Walter just wants to be left alone, yet, in The Woodsman's most harrowing scene, strikes up a friendship with a young girl (Hannah Pilkes). Because Kassell and Bacon never divulge Walter's thoughts, the audience can see the scene going either way, and this is a scary thought.

The experience in jail clearly affected Walter, and he is loath to talk to anybody about anything. Everybody realizes that there is something dark about Walter, but he isn't bothering anybody so nobody confronts him on it. Bob (David Alan Grier, Baadasssss!, 15 Minutes), an old family friend, gives him a job in the lumberyard. More frighteningly, he lives across from an elementary school, where he can watch children arrive and play at school. The only family member who will talk to him is his brother-in-law (Benjamin Bratt, Catwoman, Abandon). Eventually he begins dating Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick, Secondhand Lions, Just a Kiss), a coworker. She sees the inherent goodness in Walter, but is shocked when he discloses that he was a pedophile. Vickie has issues of her own dealing with her past, and the fact that men leer at her at work. And while these people are friendly towards him, they still keep their distance.

The cast is impressive. It is good seeing Grier and Eve (Barbershop II, XXX) in non-comedic roles. Mos Def (The Italian Job, Brown Sugar) is excellent (as always) as Walter's parole officer, and Sedgwick's performance as Vickie is strong. Kassell ups the fidgety factor by adding in a sex scene between Sedgwick and Bacon, who are married in real life. There are some elements of the story that seem present only to artificially increase the drama, like the fact that Walter lives by a school, or that he sees somebody that looks like a potential child predator outside the school, but thankfully these elements do not come off as cliched as they sound. It is Bacon's horrifyingly realistic portrayal of Walter than cinches the film. Because of the way he looks, it's sometimes hard to remember that Bacon is an actor. The fact that as Walter, he can make people squirm, attests to his skill and ability.

Mongoose Rates It: Pretty Good.
1 hour, 27 minutes, Rated R for sexuality, disturbing behavoir, and language.

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