Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Woodsman (2004)

A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

In today's world, or at least in its "Western" part, scope of tolerated sexual activities is continuing to broaden. The only exception seems to be paedophilia, which recently became convenient spot for moralists and conservatives to channel the outrage they can't express towards other, "politically correct" forms of sex. This reflects on popular culture, where the paedophilia appears to be worse problem than drug abuse, domestic violence, global warming or terrorism. Hollywood gave its contribution to the phenomenon with simplistic portrayals of paedophiles. So, it takes a lot of courage to go against the current and treat paedophiles as human beings. THE WOODSMAN, 2004 drama directed by Nicole Kassell is one of such films.

The film is based on the play by Stephen Fechter, who co-wrote the script with Kassell. The protagonist is Walter (played by Kevin Bacon), convicted child molester who returns to Philadelphia who was paroled after serving 12 years in prison. Walter is determined not to return behind bars and tries to do the right thing - he gets a job in local sawmill, keeps to himself and regularly visits therapist. But his old life nevertheless finds a way to affect him - either through encounters with his kind-hearted Portorican brother-in-law Carlos (played by Benjamin Bratt) and hostile police detective Sergeant Lucas (played by Mos Def) or romance with co-worker Vicki (played by Kyra Sedgwick), woman who has some difficult issues of her own. The biggest problem appears to be his apartment, which happens to overlook school yard and gives Walter ability to witness another paedophile (played by Kevin Rice) at work. Gradually, Walter begins to return to his old ways and stalks Robin (played by Hannah Pilkes), 11-year old girl who likes to watch birds in the park.

THE WOODSMAN indicates its theatrical origin by not having much of a plot. Instead, the film works as intriguing and often disturbing character study. Many of the characters, like Carlos, appear to be brought only to help describe Walter's character rather than advance the plot. Because of this, THE WOODSMAN, more than most other films, depends on good acting. Thankfully, Bacon, who was executive producer of the film, is brilliant in his difficult and thankless role. With his understated but powerful performance, Bacon breaks many Hollywood stereotypes in portrayal of paedophilia - he is not some pathetic old, middle-to-upper class monster whose perversion could be often interpreted as consequence of rejection by adult women. Instead, Bacon's character, even in his 40ies and after twelve years behind bars, looks disturbingly normal; on the surface he is quiet, unassuming blue-collar man who minds his own business. He is even attractive enough to become interest of one female character in the film. And, furthermore, he is a man with enough intellect to realise his affliction and try to fight it the best way he can. Bacon succeeds in what many films of this nature fail to do - he invokes sympathy for his character while never justifying nor condoning his actions.

Bacon's role - which, according to many, missed "Oscar" nomination only due to Academy's bigotry and lack of courage - is enhanced by the rest of cast, including his wife Kyra Sedwigck or rapper Mos Def in difficult and thankless role of intimidating policeman. Kassell also shows great skill as a director - he allows plot to build slowly, with great eye for detail; on the other hand, pacing is nearly flawless and the audience will be surprised to find so much content in hour and half of running time.

THE WOODSMAN is surprisingly good film, but at this stage it is far from becoming classic. The minimalist plot - which was partially built on few hardly believable details - ends too neatly, and some may argue that the authors took simplistic and predictable method for protagonist's redemption. But THE WOODSMAN nevertheless deserves recommendation because it deals with one disturbing phenomenon in an honest and humane way.

RATING: 7/10 (+++)


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