Nicole Kassell’s debut film, “The Woodsman”, is about a pedophile recently released from prison who attempts to start over despite the odds stacked against him, some of his own making, others beyond his control. It’s an independent film in every sense, and although quite daring in its chosen subject matter, it’s probably too much of a clinical, sterile look at the obstacles facing a man who may in fact be a monster in disguise. As Walter, Kevin Bacon is superb, with his dull dead eyes and listless energy. Does Walter want to change? Can Walter change? These are all questions that the film raises; they are also questions that the film never bothers to answer.
“The Woodsman” stars perennial character actor Kevin Bacon as Walter, who after 12 years in prison, is finally released back into society. He gets a job at a lumberyard, where he meets and starts a strange relationship with the fiercely independent Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick, Bacon’s real-life wife). Walter is also required to see a therapist, while a police Sergeant (Mos Def) keeps a close eye on him from very close range. As if fate was being cruel on purpose, the only apartment that will rent to Walter is directly across the street from an elementary school. It’s during Walter’s daily observation of the school that he notices a man he nicknames Candy (Kevin Rice) skulking about with a bag of candy…
At around 85 minutes, “The Woodsman” could have been stretched out into a two-hour movie, because the film and its content certainly could have filled the extra space. But under the direction of co-writer Nicole Kassell, the film moves at a surprisingly brisk pace, perhaps realizing that such a hard subject matter shouldn’t be allowed to fester. Through it all, “Woodsman” asks its questions: Will Walter revert back to his predatory state? Will he take action to stop Candy? Will the cop go beyond the law to stop Walter, who he perceives as an immediate threat? And how long before Walter’s co-workers learn about his past?
The fact that “The Woodsman” is such a lean and efficient film is to Kassell’s credit. While the subject matter makes for a hard film for anyone, Kassell’s non-judgmental take on Walter makes the film more than bearable, it’s almost entertaining — up to a point. In other, more pretentious hands, the film could have bogged down into a series of depressing interludes about whether Walter is a man or monster. Instead, Kassell has crafted an understated and gritty, but strangely very easy to swallow, film that takes no sides, but simply just…presents.
Does the film make any kind of statement? If it did, I didn’t catch it. From what I can tell, the film goes out of its way not to preach, and certainly doesn’t try to convince you about anything. This is, in simplest terms, the life of a pedophile after prison, and there’s just nothing more to it than that. Which isn’t to say the film isn’t substantive or deep — it’s just not the least bit smug, or filled with self-congratulations about its perceived heavy importance.
Technically, the film pulls out some slick tricks, such as putting us directly into the mind of Walter. There are scenes that take place that we are not sure if it’s really happening or if it’s all in Walter’s imagination. Did Walter really ask his brother-in-law (played by “Law and Order’s” Benjamin Bratt) if he ever fantasizes about his daughter? Bacon’s face is so hard to read that it’s impossible to really know what Walter is thinking. Does he become angry while watching Candy operate? Why? Does he despise Candy for being another pedophile, or because Candy is getting away with something Walter can’t?
In the lead role, Kevin Bacon is utterly convincing as Walter. The actor has never really received his just dues from Hollywood, and it’s amazing to see his performance here, and realize it’s gone completely unnoticed by the moviemaking Establishment. Unfortunately Bacon is probably the only good actor in the bunch, although Mos Def does hold his own, portraying a hardworking cop who wants to do his job and maybe save the world, and is willing to get his hands dirty to achieve those ends. At one point, Mos Def’s character mentions, offhandedly, that he could throw Walter out the window and no one would question him about it. The look on Walter’s face mirrors our own — he believes Mos Def, and so do we.
Without a doubt, it’s Bacon’s performance that sells “The Woodsman”. A scene, towards the end of the film, when Walter finally, after all these years, sees the heartbreaking result of what molestation can do to a child, will convince anyone who cares to notice just what a great actor Bacon really is, and just how unjustified it is that he was completely ignored by the Academy Awards. Compare what Bacon has accomplished here to Leonardo DiCaprio’s turn as Howard Hughes in Scorsese’s bloated “The Aviator”, and you’ll never take the Oscars seriously ever again.
Unfortunately the rest of the cast is hit and miss. Kyra Sedgwick, as the co-worker who decides to take a chance on Walter, plays grungy and seductive well enough, but one can’t help but think that another actress who isn’t so connected to Bacon in real life might have been a better choice. With Bacon having completely gotten lost in Walter’s skin, his hard work comes in doubt whenever he has to share scenes with Sedgwick. It’s not because Sedgwick is a terrible actress, and in fact she’s quite good in the movie. It’s simply this: every time Sedgwick appears in the same scene with Bacon’s Walter, we are reminded that it’s Kevin Bacon, Sedgwick’s husband, playing the role of Walter. It may be unfair, but it’s the truth — Sedgwick’s presence damages the illusion of Bacon’s performance.
“The Woodsman” is so a-political it might very well disappoint some viewers. No matter what side of the issues you come from, the film’s lack of answers, or any attempts at providing evidence that you were right (or wrong) all along, will surely frustrate those seeking confirmation or an argument. Can Walter ever change? Does he even deserve a second chance? Is it society’s duty to see that he gets a fair, second shake? Or is it for everyone’s interest that he be locked away in a dark cell and never remembered? All good questions, but you’ll never find “The Woodsman” taking sides on any of them.
Nicole Kassell (director) / Steven Fechter (play), Steven Fechter, Nicole Kassell (screenplay)
CAST: Kevin Bacon …. Walter
Kyra Sedgwick …. Vickie
Mos Def …. Sgt. Lucas
Benjamin Bratt …. Carlos
David Alan Grier …. Bob
Eve …. Mary-Kay
Kevin Rice …. Candy