January 21, 2005

The Woodsman

Directed by Nicole Kassell Starring Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

One of the few cringe-worthy taboos remaining in a post-Monicagate world, child molestation has become a dinner-table topic thanks to extensive media coverage of Michael Jackson's decade-long legal woes and the 2002 scandal involving Catholic priests. Stanley Kubrick's Lolita addressed the subject on celluloid back in 1962, but Happiness would still lose its original American distributor nearly four decades later due to Todd Solondz's more frank treatment. The floodgate only opened recently as general heightened awareness of the issue led to considerably less outrage surrounding Mystic River, L.I.E. and Capturing the Friedmans.

The Woodsman is of note because it is possibly the first film to depict a child molester chipping away at his inner demons. While the flawed effort offers little else, it boasts a fascinatingly complex and unnervingly unprejudiced portrayal of its predatory protagonist. Walter (Kevin Bacon) has emerged from serving 12 years for the crime and tries to carve out a life for himself outside the prison walls. He cautiously rebuffs friendly gestures from a coworker at his new lumberyard job, attempts to reach out to the family that disowned him, resists temptations all around, endures taunts and harassment, and presses his therapist as to when he will finally be "normal." Disturbingly, Walter's splintered existence only seems completely unperturbed when he works his charm on potential prey.

Often contrasting Walter's instinctive thought process and his struggle to suppress it, the film elicits both disgust and sympathy from viewers. This effect might not have been possible without Bacon's nuanced and multifaceted performance. A therapy session - where Walter bridges a connection between a seemingly innocuous childhood memory and how it manifests into his deviance - is perhaps the film's most emotionally charged moment thanks to the actor's gripping turn.

Still, The Woodsman has plenty of defects. First-time director Nicole Kassell has that fresh-out-of-film-school eagerness to install the unvarnished texture and the freeze-frames from the 1970s to ostentatious effect. Steven Fechter and Kassell's screenplay also often gets lost in loose-fitting minor characters and wobbly subplots. Despite praiseworthy performances by Kyra Sedgwick and Mos Def, tangents involving their characters are unconvincing. Not only does Walter inexplicably live in an apartment that is a box seat for the playground directly across the street, he later hypocritically sets out to protect children from other sexual predators. When the film ultimately stacks the pile too high with calculated confrontations with molestation victims, it finally wanders off into the forest of contrivance.

Reprinted from WestEnder. © Copyright 2005 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.