Where Nicole Kidman stomped into the sickening realm of pedophilia with reckless abandon in Birth, Kevin Bacon treads softly in the story of a convicted child molester struggling for normalcy post-prison. It helps that Bacon, unlike Kidman, never actually makes out with any children.
The underrated Mr. Bacon gives what is unquestionably the best performance of his life in the uncomfortable yet powerful film The Woodsman, as a recently released pedophile named Walter. Were his crime any other than the serial molestation of 10-12 year old girls (he always asked their ages); Walter might seem a sympathetic character. Instead, The Woodsman mightily dares to simply give us a completely honest figure, letting us crawl into Walter’s skin as he battles within himself to become what he defines as normal. “Normal,” says Walter, is being “able to see girls, go up to girls, even talk to girls without thinking about...” The consequences of thinking about whatever it is that he thinks about are horrific, not only for Walter and his victim, but for The Woodsman’s audience.
It is that uncomfortable fear that keeps The Woodsman an absolutely gripping, edge of your seat experience. As the movie maturely grapples with the issues of a recovering molester’s life, this simple drama becomes something akin to a suspense thriller. Its ninety minutes whiz past in a blur of conflicting emotions as time is spent digging fingernails into the arms of your chair. To its credit, the film never demands sympathy for its character, though it is impossible not to look on him with pity. True, he is much abused, but even Walter believes that he probably deserves it. When he’s discriminated against on the job, attacked and harassed because a secretary believed people had a right to know, The Woodsman makes it easy to believe that despite Walter’s mistreatment, she may be right. Director Nicole Kassell wisely never lets her film clearly come down in favor of the character. Whether Walter deserves our commiseration hinges on who comes out the winner in his inner battle against depraved sexual demons.
Bacon’s brutally open portrayal of a haggard, self-loathing man we would all rightly assume to be a monster is a risky choice for a very veteran actor. He’s played preps, bullies, villains, and teenagers dancing for freedom, but playing a pedophile is the sort of role that could win you a few enemies. Kevin makes it work by portraying his character as a dark, self-effacing wreck. A man so beaten down that new acquaintances have a tendency to immediately ask him, “What did you do?” His crime is written all over his face, and Walter made only more pitiful in the bright contrast of Kevin Bacon’s effervescent blue eyes. Partly out of fear of discovery and partly to punish himself, he avoids contact with others. His old friends and his entire family have abandoned him. His brother-in-law is his only visitor but Walter’s twisted dementia causes him to mistake a father’s love for a mirror image of his own illness.
The film’s soundtrack by Nathan Larson, filled with contrasting mixes of heavy beats and light beeps mirrors Walter’s dark battle while Kassell uses beautiful camera work and high speed fast forwards reminiscent of the 70’s to drag us through his head. Kassell’s goal here is not to take us step by step in the life of a monster, but to catch him in a snapshot of his life where he has a chance for recovery, if not redemption. The odds, Walter knows, are against him. Most pedophiles end up right back in prison. It’s a fight almost no one wins. A deeply affecting detective assigned to watchdog him, played by the surprising Mos Def, wonders why they even bothered to let him out. He knows he’ll just have to catch him again.
The Woodsman works so well because Kassell never really approves or disapproves of her abhorrent character. She has the good sense to stand back and frame the amazing work of her talented star, and in the process sends her aghast audience on a demanding ride of appalling emotions. The Woodsman boldly points its finger at society’s most justly hated villain without dismissing him as a cardboard baddie or a two dimensional devil. Walter repeatedly cries “I’m not a monster!” but it’s almost as if he’s still trying to convince himself.
The shocking nature of this movie means it isn’t for everyone. Some of you simply can’t handle it. If you can, The Woodsman is one of the most dynamic, weighty films of the year. It’ll leave you feeling wasted.