Saturday, February 26, 2005

Review - The Woodsman

Hollywood has never really known what to do with Kevin Bacon. Too talented to be restricted to supporting roles yet not having the kind of clean-cut looks which make him a natural leading man. Nevertheless, he has still managed to establish a reputation as one of the most interesting and adventurous American actors and he reaches a career peak in Nicole Kassell’s challenging debut film The Woodsman.

Bacon gives a haunting performance as Walter, a convicted paedophile who has just been released after a 12 year stretch. He takes a job in a lumberyard and moves into a small apartment opposite a school. He keeps a low profile and attempts to slowly rebuild his life. Walter soon catches the attention of Vickie (Bacon’s real-life wife Kyra Sedgewick), who is rather taken by this mysterious stranger. Walter and Vickie begin a hesitant relationship and, though she is initially shocked by his confession, she promises not to judge him on his past. There seems to be the possibility of a happy ending for Walter but constant pressure from a local cop (Mos Def), the prying of suspicious work colleagues and his difficulty in controlling his own urges threaten his happiness.

This would be difficult material for any director to handle, but first-timer Kassell has bravely taken on Stephen Fechter’s play and made a fine job of it. Her direction is unfussy and intelligent and she handles the some incredibly delicate situations with the utmost care. The best decision she’s made in the entire process is to cast Bacon in the lead role. His haunted, fearful expression perfectly expresses the agony of a man who is always on full alert, lest his past should be discovered. Walter lives his life hour by hour and still struggles to contain the desires which put him away in the first place. He knows the thoughts he has are wrong but what can he do about them?

Bacon’s subtle and complex characterisation makes us empathise with this character when our first impulse would be to turn our backs on him, to lock him up and throw away the key. It’s a stunning portrait of a man desperate to be ‘normal’ but at the mercy of impulses beyond his control. At certain points in The Woodsman, Walter is tempted to perform another crime and sequences where he follows a group of young girls through a shopping centre are tense and uncomfortable viewing. We are placed firmly in the paedophile’s mindset as he tracks down little girls. He seems to be almost on rails, driven forward by desires he cannot comprehend. But these moments are not as tough as an agonizing encounter he has with a lonely girl on a park bench (a breathtakingly sensitive performance from young Hannah Pilkes). This is one of the scenes of the year, almost unbearable to watch yet written and performed to perfection.

The Woodsman is full of such moments, yet it has its fair share of faults too. My major problem with it was the prevalence of child abuse in the lives of many supporting characters. Vickie talks with Walter about suffering as a child, the detective shadowing him is still haunted by a case he once worked on and it’s even hinted that all is not well at the home of Robin, the girl Walter meets late in the film. These elements of the screenplay seem awkward and unnecessary, making the paedophilia too up-front when it should focus on Walter’s struggle alone. Even worse is the addition of another child-molester who Walter spots staking out the local school. He sees this character as a mirror image of himself and perhaps there is a chance of redemption if he can confront him. This is a rather simplistic notion, which veers dangerously close to a good paedophile vs. bad paedophile scenario. In truth, it doesn’t work, and it seems out of place for Kassell to give kudos to Walter for resorting to the kind of vigilantism which she seems to be challenging elsewhere.

Perhaps understandably, The Woodsman doesn’t quite have the courage of its convictions, and the pat climax disappoints. However, many of these faults can be forgiven for the sheer bravery of making this film in the first place and all those involved deserve the greatest of credit for taking things as far as they have. The Woodsman dares to place a paedophile centre-stage and make us care about him. It’s worth seeing for Bacon’s performance alone (which should have been, but predictably wasn’t, Oscar-nominated) and it will hopefully mark the emergence of a hugely talented young director. The Woodsman is not an easy film by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a daring and valuable one.