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Woodsman, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 01/07/05 00:18:02

"A good Kevin Bacon performance-and that's about it."
3 stars (Just Average)

“The Woodsman” has an ambitious and provocative idea behind it; it wants to take that most reviled criminal type, the child molester, and present him in a way that is, if not sympathetic, at least understanding of his feelings and his struggles with the demons that may still have a hold of him. It is an intriguing premise, if not as shocking or groundbreaking as some of its supporters have claimed (writer-director Todd Solondz attempted a similar thing in “Happiness”), but it is one that the film never quite lives up too. It is a shame because even though the movie never really comes together, it contains a performance by Kevin Bacon in the central role that does.

Bacon plays Walter, who, as the film opens, is just being released from prison after serving time for molesting a couple of girls. He takes a job in a furniture factory where the boss (David Alan Greer) knows about his past but is willing to overlook it because of the quality of his work. Off the clock, he lives in near-total isolation–his only visitor is his reasonably friendly brother-in-law (Benjamin Bratt), but his presence only serves to remind Walter of how his sister refuses to see him. One co-worker, Mary Kay (Eve), tries to ask him out but he rebuffs her; later, he hooks up, after a fashion, with another co-worker, the tough-as-nails Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick) and finds himself opening up to her about his past. Vickie, a victim of sexual abuse herself, is surprisingly understanding and is willing to accept him despite his past.

Before long, however, his transition grows much rougher. Upset at being rebuffed, Mary Kay discovers his secret and makes sure that everyone else in the factory knows it as well; even though his boss courageously sticks up for him, the work atmosphere is poisoned for him. A rash of molestations begins to occur in his neighborhood and a not-so-friendly cop (Mos Def) begins to visit regularly and basically insinuates to Walter that even if he isn’t responsible, he will most likely slip at some point. The scary thing to Walter is that the cop may be right; as the pressure on him grows, he starts to see predators and prey everywhere and he begins to indulge in increasingly reckless behavior. At one point, he idly follows a girl around in a shopping mall and later, while “birdwatching,” finds himself drawn into a conversation with 12-year-old Robin (Hannah Pilkes) that would be creepy even if we didn’t know what he was once (and perhaps still) capable of.

In its early scenes, “The Woodsman” is undeniably effective–first-time director Nicole Kassell has a good sense for creating a convincing blue-collar atmosphere and populating it with people who look and feel appropriate to their surroundings. More important, she maintains an interesting balance in portraying Walter. He is neither a misunderstood saint nor a one-dimensional villain. Instead, she treats him as a genuine human being, one with enormous flaws but also with a certain stubborn humanity that cannot be denied. Instead of a monster, Walter is shown as just a regular person who has done wrong in the past and is trying to avoid doing it again in the future.

At a certain point, however, Kassell lets her carefully maintained balance slip away as she begins to load on more and more overtly melodramatic baggage. The subplot involving Mary Kay is an unpleasant distraction, especially when it winds up suggesting that she rats out Walter’s secret not because of some misguided sense of justice or fair play but because she is simply mad that he rebuffed her for the other girl in the office. The contrivance of having the only apartment that Walter can find being one just across the street from a grade school (though just beyond the court-ordered distance he is supposed to maintain) is one that we can sort of swallow early on when Kassell doesn’t call too much attention to it; later on, she treats it like a wine glass in a movie about alcoholism–an easy thing to cut to in order to remind viewers about Walter’s problems.

Then there is the whole aspect of Walter recognizing his former behavior in the actions of other people–he even learns from Robin when they meet again that she is probably being molested by her own father. This aspect is especially enraging because it seems to have been added to make Walter look a little better in our eyes (hey, he may be a molester, but at least he didn’t touch boys or family members )as well as allowing a convenient out for the scene (Walter curbs his impulses after seeing how her life has already been shattered by the same behavior) without touching on the more potentially troubling undercurrents (such as the possibility that Walter begs off because he knows that he won’t be the first). What is especially strange about all of these developments is that while they may sound incredibly melodramatic, Kassell still uses her understated approach and the result is a curious conflict–the storyline is exploding while the characters are imploding–that sounds more interesting than it plays.

And yet, amid all the stuff that doesn’t quite work in “The Woodsman,” there is the splendid central performance from Kevin Bacon, who has been receiving all sorts of acclaim for his “brave” choice in playing a character like Walter. To me that sounds like a backhanded compliment because it suggests that Bacon is being praised simply for choosing the role instead of for the very real depth and humanity that he brings to the part. Although he is still best known in some parts for his roles in pop junk like “Footloose,” he has steadily built himself up into one of the more reliable actors around with standout turns in such varied films as the widely-seen “JFK,” “Apollo 13 and “Mystic River” as well as lesser-known items like “Murder in the First,” “Telling Lies in America” and “Stir of Echoes.” As good as he was in those films, the character of Walter seems to have really tapped into something within him andthe result is the best performance of his career to date

With its combination of taboo subject matter and a daring star turn, “The Woodsman” has been compared in some quarters to past films such as “Monster” and “Monster’s Ball.” Actually, this comparison is fairly apt because all three contain lead performances far more nervy and thought-out than the films that contain them. I can’t really recommend “The Woodsman” full because it never lives up to the promise of its early scenes. However, for those willing to overlook weak storytelling in order to witness a truly extraordinary performance, Bacon’s work shines through the sub-par surroundings so brightly that you may find yourself more forgiving its faults than I.

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