Great filmmaking is more than the stringing together of plot exposition, suspense, special effects and, if the audience is lucky, the odd dream sequence or slow-motion fight scene to create a visually-impressive vehicle for mindless entertainment. Great films force the viewer to think, often about subjects they would normally refuse to consider. Great films push viewers toward understanding even the most vile, grotesque characters. And great films demonstrate that heroes are not always perfect. Indeed, in great films, a protagonist’s imperfections, his struggle to overcome his many flaws—in other words, his humanity—is what makes him real.
The Woodsman is a great film.
Creator Nicole Kassell, making her feature writing and directing debut, delivers a disturbing, provocative tour-de-force that delves deeply into one man’s psyche. Starring Kevin Bacon as Walter, a convict just released from prison after serving a twelve-year sentence for molesting adolescent girls, The Woodsman provides a probing glimpse into the life of a deeply disturbed man struggling to vanquish his demons.
The film puts its audience’s sense of compassion to the test, tempting viewers to empathize with Walter in his struggle to salvage his life without forgetting his terrible past.
After his release from jail, Walter moves into a small apartment—in one of the few instances of plot contrivance in the film, Walter’s new home is located 320 feet from an elementary school—and finds work at a nearby lumberyard. Determined to quietly resist the constant temptation to relapse into sexual deviance, Walter remains alone and estranged from most of his family, including his sister and niece.
Walter’s only familial contact comes in the form of occasional visits from his concerned brother-in-law Carlos (Benjamin Bratt), who provides some company and advice but is often the bearer of heartbreaking news—he returns Walter’s wedding gift and warns Walter away from his niece.
Walter faces similar isolation at work, where, initially, only his boss Bob (David Alan Grier) is aware of his sordid history. When Bob’s secretary Mary-Kay, played convincingly by recording artist Eve, senses that there is something strange about Walter, a bit of research finds his name in a registry of convicted sex offenders.
As news of Walter’s past spreads from coworker to coworker, Walter feels increasingly alienated and depressed. He begins to find unexpected comfort, however, in his dynamic, tough coworker and would-be lover Vickie (played by Bacon’s real-life wife Kyra Sedgwick). After a passionate sexual encounter with Vickie, Walter discloses the startling details of his unsavory past to her before succumbing to his own shame and throwing her out of his apartment. Stunned by Walter’s confession and by his cold treatment, Vickie is moved so deeply by his story that she is nonetheless able to eventually forgive Walter and stand by him despite his many shortcomings.
Vickie’s supportiveness provides a stark contrast to the treatment Walter receives from Sgt. Lewis (Mos Def), a local police officer who harbors nothing but disdainful contempt for Walter, harassing him at home and vowing to return him to prison where he belongs.
Bacon’s performance stands out as the most breathtaking in the film. Subdued and roiling, subtle and yet bristling with emotion, Bacon delivers an astonishing portrayal of a man in constant battle with his own degenerate temptations. We sense Walter’s anguish as he follows young girls around a local mall and befriends a youngster, Robin (played by newcomer Hannah Pilkes) in a nearby park, always rooting for him to resist the darker side of himself.
When Walter saves a young boy from a pedophile who he has observed lurking around the local school, we are almost—but not quite—satisfied that he has slain his demons, having confronted head-on that which represents everything he loathes about himself. Yet this satisfaction quickly evaporates when Walter’s bittersweet reunion with his sister ends badly, and we sense that Walter’s struggle will continue long after the film’s end.
Mos Def and Sedgwick are convincing as human representations of the conflict within Walter’s psyche between revulsion at his sinister urges and the courage and self-acceptance that he knows he must muster in order to survive.
Telling camerawork by cinematographer Xavier Pérez Grobet (Tortilla Soup) provides another revealing contrast, with scenes in and around Walter’s apartment and at his job appearing drab and gray, while scenes in the park with Robin are filled with color. The supporting cast skillfully depicts the various attitudes of outsiders toward Walter’s sickness. And though the screenplay (written by Kassell and Steven Fechter) occasionally overreaches with a few contrived lines and overwrought symbols, it seamlessly crafts the complex, raw story and invites an audience reaction as conflicted as the emotions of the characters themselves.
The Woodsman is unique among films released so far in 2004 in that its protagonist is not a hero in the purest sense of the word, and yet he is still to be admired, even if he is also abhorred. Eschewing stereotyping for true character development, Kassell forces her audience to walk a fine line between sympathy and disgust. Leaving the theater, viewers must be content to accept both their repulsion and their admiration for Walter. Often disturbing, sometimes difficult to watch, but always stimulating and emotionally charged, The Woodsman is a powerful and staggering work, and it is not to be missed.
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