How do you rate a film that rattles your soul so deeply that you find yourself remembering deeply traumatic experiences to the point that your body is trembling, your heart is racing and your mind is in overdrive? How do you rate a film that reminds you of every deep, dark corner of your life? How do you rate a film that humanizes, deeply humanizes, the beast you've fought for yours to forget?
If I had seen a film such as "The Woodsman" a few years ago you'd have found me balled up in the corner of my house crying in a fetal position. I'd have remembered it for days, perhaps longer, and would have been reliving my trauma and been desperately trying to resist the urge for self-injury.
Flash forward to 2005 and I've now seen "The Woodsman" for the second time. "The Woodsman" is the story of Walter, a man released from prison struggling to overcome the stigma and pressures of a life of supposed "freedom." Yet, "The Woodsman" is not just another post-prison life film...Walter is not your typical ex-con. Walter is a pedophile who served twelve years for the molestation of, at least, 3 young girls and possibly more.
"The Woodsman" is not an easy film to view. While it humanizes Walter, it definitely does not romanticize him. Walter is a deeply, deeply flawed man who fights the urges of pedophilia and other thoughts and feelings that the vast majority of us cannot even begin to identify with in our daily lives. It is the humanization of Walter, in a brilliant performance by Kevin Bacon, that makes "The Woodsman" such a powerful film. It is easy to make a pedophile a monster...it is easy to make a pedophile a sexually obsessed druggie...or a horrific, violent and controlling ogre...what is not easy, but is so MUCH more often the truth, is to make a pedophile an ordinary average guy just struggling to get by and living life in a way where the average person on the street would never look at him and say "That man's a danger to my child!"
Bacon's performance as Walter is, in my estimation, Bacon's finest performance including his wondrous role in "Murder in the First." This role called for a complexity that would defy the ability of most actors...When Bacon utters the sentence to his brother-in-law "I am not a monster" one can't help but look in Bacon's eyes and recognize the fact that he knows the truth...there is a monster inside of him...a monster that has hurt and controlled and manipulated and abused young girls. Yet, there's more inside Walter and Bacon shows us everything...the rage he feels when confronted, repeatedly, by Sgt. Lucas (in an understatedly impactful performance by Mos Def)...the defiant, self-centered and self-victimization he portrays in dealing with Carlos, his brother-in-law, with a nice supporting turn by Benjamin Bratt...AND, most powerfully, in one of the closing scenes in the park with Robin, a young 12-year-old girl, in which he bounces from man on the edge to perpetrator to protector. Seldom have I ever seen an actor convey such depth, such complexity in such a short span of screen time as the scene in the park. Kudos must also go to Hannah Pilkes, who conveys amazing depth as the young Robin. "The Woodsman" is her first and only film credit currently, but I'm predicting a tremendous future for this young actress should she stay in acting.
Bacon's real life wife, Kyra Sedgwick nearly steals Bacon's thunder in her role as Vickie, a fellow factory worker who, despite her own traumatic experiences, sees something within Walter that he doesn't even see himself. In an incredibly challenging role that could have been completely unbelievable or over-the-top warm and fuzzy, Sedgwick plays beautifully a woman who knows the facts but sees a different truth. It's a smoldering performance that challenges one's thoughts and feelings about pedophiles, but again adds a humanity that made this storyline even more powerful.
In additional supporting performances, strong performances are offered by David Alan Grier, Eve and Carlos Leon. (Yes, on a VERY light note...this film features ex's of both Julia Roberts and Madonna in supporting roles. I kept expecting Lyle Lovett or Sean Penn to surface somewhere).
There are ways to argue this film...I understand the challenge, especially for sexual abuse survivors, in seeing a "human" portrayal of a pedophile...a man, who in fact, ruined the lives of multiple children AND, quite clearly, was still struggling with those feelings. The script, by Steven Fechter (who also wrote the original theatrical production), is glossy at times but undoubtedly one of the most realistic, well-grounded scripts ever to deal so bluntly with the portrayal of a child molester. There are issues that, in fact, ring untrue...perhaps the most basic being Walter's moving out of prison into an apartment right across from a school. Being that he did, in fact, register on the sex offender registry, there's, quite literally, no way this would have happened as openly as it's presented here. While by the end of the film, I understood the power of his moving away, I still felt like it was unrealistically dramatic and somewhat manipulative in its presentation.
Many would also want to argue some of the individual scenes as unrealistic...yet, for me again, in humanizing Walter this film rises above other films that have dealt with this subject. In many ways, it shatters many of the myths that exist about pedophiles and yet does so in such an offensive way that you find yourself screaming at the screen "That's bullshit."
Production design for this low-budget film is exemplary, with excellent set design, costuming and an amazingly appropriate and mood setting score. Kudos must go to director Nicole Kassell, who creates a mood that is unstable and disturbing, yet feels remarkably authentic and ordinary. It's a difficult balance that is evident consistently throughout the film.
"The Woodsman" is not a film that survivors of sexual abuse should see alone...many years into my own healing, I still found the film to be tremendously challenging and triggering of memories and flashbacks. It is not a perfect film, yet it is a powerful film that tackles one of the most difficult subjects a film could tackle and does so with a refreshingly balanced, honest and straightforward approach thanks to stellar performances from leads Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick. It's hard to say "I recommend" this film, because it most definitely is not for everyone...but, I can say without a doubt that "The Woodsman" will stay with you long after you've seen it and it will make you want to run home and hug your loved ones and do everything you can in your power to protect them.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic