The Woodsman

Review by Adam Blair

Directed by Nicole Kassell; screenplay by Kassell and Steven Fechter

Starring Kevin Bacon, with Kyra Sedgwick, Mos Def, Benjamin Bratt, David Alan Grier, Eve, Kevin Rice, Michael Shannon and Hannah Pilkes

Rated R; 87 minutes

It’s not too much of a stretch to say that we live in a sexually schizoid country, one that seems to be growing more contradictory by the day. Ads for Viagra and its brethren flood inboxes and TV screens, yet people flip out when Janet Jackson accidentally-on-purpose bares her breast. Anti-same-sex marriage initiatives pass overwhelmingly, probably voted for by people who watch “Will and Grace,” “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” and “Desperate Housewives” (come on, tell me that’s not a gay show).

More disturbingly, advertising and popular culture use sexualized images of adolescents and children to sell anything and everything, and yet pedophilia remains the guaranteed hot-button issue sure to inflame people across virtually the entire politico-cultural spectrum — including me. But I also believe it’s important to separate one’s outrage and revulsion from curiosity and understanding. I can’t understand how, for example, Alfred Kinsey studying pedophiles as part of his sexual research becomes, in some people’s minds, an implicit endorsement of “those people.”

I also operate under the assumption that it’s the job of creative people to explore the darker alleyways of the human psyche, bringing to bear whatever gifts of empathy and honesty they possess. All of which is to say that The Woodsman, a well-done portrait of an ex-convict pedophile played by Kevin Bacon, evokes more complicated responses than most standard-issue dramas.

First-time feature director and co-screenwriter Nicole Kassell walks an ambitious tightrope with this film, succeeding more often than not in involving the audience in the main character’s struggles without denying the horror of his desires and actions. To steal a line from the church, she hates the sin but loves the sinner — or at the very least finds him interesting. The screenplay sometimes resorts to too-convenient devices and underdeveloped characters, but these “Afterschool Special” weaknesses distract but don’t harm the overall effect of the film.

Much of the credit should go to Bacon’s portrayal of Walter (he was also one of the film’s executive producers). It’s a juicy part — Walter is struggling not only with the condemnation of the outside world but with his own barely understood compulsions — and Bacon, with Kassell’s help, finds multiple ways of expressing the confusion and anger that color Walter’s worldview.

Kassell and director of photography Xavier Pérez Grobet dramatize his temptation with a carefully chosen color palette. Walter’s existence is a dull, blue-collar tedium of greens, blues and grays, but his memory of seductions past is represented by a deep red kickball sent his way by an underage girl.

The acting and direction pay off when Walter tempts himself (and skeeves the audience) in a heartbreaking seduction scene with excellent child actress Hannah Pilkes. I was rooting for his character to “just say no” while understanding how tough that choice would always be for him.

Bacon’s real-life wife Kyra Sedgwick, as Walter’s tough-as-she-looks girlfriend, is technically fine but doesn’t seem to really inhabit the part of an abuse survivor. Mos Def, as a police sergeant who believes the worst about Walter and the world at large, makes a strong impression in two intense scenes with Bacon but remains basically a plot device.

Watching The Woodsman (the title is a play on Little Red Riding Hood — Walter wants to stop being the wolf who eats the little girl and become the hero who saves her and grandma), I wondered about the appropriateness of casting someone as inherently likeable as Kevin Bacon in the role of a sexual predator. It’s not that Bacon makes an effort to charm the audience, but his face (still youthful-looking in certain shots) brings to mind all the nice guys and charming assholes he’s played over a long career.

Then it occurred to me: molesters succeed with their victims because they are, in some way, charming. This may be a minor revelation but it’s an important one. Like a lot of The Woodsman, it sticks with you.

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