Woodsman, The (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Note: This review contains spoilers. If you wish to have a virgin movie-going experience, return to the review after having seen the film.

For obvious reasons, there aren't many movies about pedophiles or pedophilia. To date, the best-known of these is, of course, Stanley Kubrick's Lolita. Since the 1960s, however, entries have been few and far between, and, in most cases, the pedophile is depicted as a sinister caricature. Enter Philadephian Nicole Kassell, who has decided to break through the taboos and make a movie about a pedophile who is developed as a character, not a stereotype. It's the kind of thing British director Ken Loach might do; indeed, the approach is a little Loach-like. For Kassell, this is a bold and perhaps foolhardy move, especially since it's her feature debut. But, due in large part to the participation of Kevin Bacon, she has managed to secure a distributor.

The impulse of the viewer is to be revolted by a pedophile, so Kassell does two things to curb this tendency. She gets the likeable Bacon to play the character and doesn't explicitly reveal his infraction until a third of the way through the movie. This gives us time to get to know him before the hatred builds. Kassell does not ask us to like Bacon's Walter, nor does she expect us to sympathize with him. This is not a bleeding-heart "feel sorry for the criminal" movie. All Kassell is asking is that we try to understand Walter - and even that is a bigger step than some viewers will be able or willing to take.

When we first meet Walter, he is an ex-con being re-introduced to society. He has a new apartment (improbably located across the street from an elementary school playground), a new job, and a new chance at life. His family has all-but-disowned him, with the lone exception of his brother-in-law (Benjamin Bratt). For the most part, he shuns his co-workers, preferring his own company during lunch and standing alone at the bus stop when the day is over. An affair with a forklift operator, Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick), leads Walter to admit his crime. Meanwhile, his old impulses are pulling at him, and his situation is exacerbated as the view through his window shows him what he believes to be another pedophile at work. Visits by a local cop (Mos Def) are intended to keep him on the straight-and-narrow, but they further erode his self-esteem, making his quest for redemption all the more difficult. It's clear from his conversations with his psychologist that he wants to be "normal," but something deep within him is pushing him away from that goal.

The crucial scene occurs late in the film. Walter stalks an 11-year old girl named Robin (Hannah Pilkes), who has a love of bird-watching. As they converse and his desire for her mounts, he realizes that she has been the victim of abuse by her father. The conversation is unsettling because of the dynamic between the two of them. He is fighting himself, but is aware of the ease with which he could prey upon her. She, as someone accustomed to playing the role of victim, is almost eager to comply with his request for her to sit on his lap. The resolution of this conflict marks a major turning point in Walter's life.

People rightly talk about the courage exhibited by Charlize Theron to play the convicted serial killer in Monster. But does it require less bravery for Kevin Bacon to take on this role? This is arguably the best performance in the actor's career. Unlike Theron, however, he is not likely to be recognized by the Academy - the subject matter of The Woodsman is too controversial. But that doesn't diminish what he has accomplished here. In every scene, we can sense monsters, demons, and compulsions lurking just beneath surface. It takes a confident actor to accept a role like this and to perform it to flawless perfection.

As for Kassell, it will be interesting to see where she goes from here. Two paths lie open to her - she can either move into a more mainstream arena or try something equally daring.

Woodsman, The (United States, 2004)

Director: Nicole Kassell
Cast: Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Benjamin Bratt, Mos Def
Screenplay: Steven Fechter, Nicole Kassell
Cinematography: Xavier PĂ©rez Grobet
Music: Nathan Larson
U.S. Distributor: Newmarket Films
Run Time: 1:27
U.S. Release Date: 2004-12-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: DRMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1