The Woodsman Review
Movies take us into other people’s lives every day, that’s often the thrill, being able to see life from a point of view you wish you had - the cop going for the big bust, the race driver, or maybe even a real ladies man. Sometimes, though, they take you into lives you’re really glad aren’t yours, sometimes that cop is crooked and heading for a fall, sometimes that race driver is going to crash and have to deal with life with a disability, but it’s not often that the ladies man is a hit with the under 12s.
Walter Rossworth (Kevin Bacon) is fresh out of prison. His supervised parole has a few more restrictions than most ex-cons though, because Walter is a pedophile. Now back in his hometown of Philadelphia, Walter is alone, his friends and his family want nothing to do with him - except for his brother-in-law Carlos (Benjamin Bratt). He has his old job back, working in a lumber yard, and nobody there but his boss knows what he did, but it’s well known he was in prison, and of course people want to know why. Walter keeps himself to himself, he doesn’t fit in anymore, and he’s scared of being discovered, but prison is a lonely place, so when one of his co-workers - Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick) - makes a move on him, it’s hard for him to keep his distance. Now Walter is struggling, he doesn’t know if he can maintain a relationship, he doesn’t know if he wants to, but more importantly he knows he hasn’t been rehabilitated, he knows he’s still tempted. He wants to be well, he wants to be normal, but can he ever be? Will the world let him have the time to find out?
To say The Woodsman is a brave film is an understatement, there aren’t many people that want to portray a pedophile, let alone one that isn’t demonised, because the real bravery in the film comes from the desire to portray Walter not as an evil terror, not a revolting criminal that needs to be captured and taken off the streets, but as a real, living, feeling, human being. It’s hard to think of a character that is so instantly dislikable, how do you go about getting an audience to sympathise with a character the audience despises after hearing only one word, and should you even try? The knee jerk reaction is that you shouldn’t, we want to be able to put sex offenders in a neat little box with Hitler, just completely evil, but the really troubling thing is that they’re not. Bacon’s performance is truly uncomfortable to watch, he knows he used to be a horribly sick man, deluding himself about what he was doing, making himself believe it was ok. Trouble is, now he knows what he did was wrong, and he hates himself for doing it, and he hates the fact he might do it again. No matter how much he hates himself though, no matter how much he wants to be normal, he knows he isn’t, and he knows if he does do it again, he’s going to like it.
Unsurprisingly it’s Bacon’s performance that the entire film stands on, and he excels as the troubled man so desperate to be something he isn’t, and so worried he never will be. It’s obvious that in ever other aspect of his life, he’s a normal guy, he doesn’t even exclusively like children - his relationship with Vickie proves that - and he’s clearly a man that hid his acts for a long time, whilst living a life that everyone thought was completely normal. In every other way, he’s a likeable guy, but knowing what he did makes you want to hate him. But you can’t, and you end up willing him to do the right thing, not for the sake of the children he has his eye on, but for his own. The trick The Woodsman pulls off is making you care more about this sex offender, than any of the other completely innocent people around him. Also, impressively, it doesn’t do this by making all the people around him shallow cut outs, as the rest of the cast - although afforded smaller roles - are fantastically played. Mos Def stands out, as the police detective with his eye on Walter. He’s seen plenty of Walter’s type, and he’s seen them all re-offend (something that is sadly true, the number of released sex offenders that commit a similar crime is startlingly high) and he’s just waiting for Walter to do the same. To begin with you want him to give Walter a chance - surely everyone deserves that second chance - but hearing the things he’s witnessed, you know exactly where he’s coming from. Similarly, Walter’s sister refuses to trust Walter, and won’t let her child see him, but whilst you completely understand why, you still want poor Walter to be given the opportunity to prove he can do things right. Instead we watch him becoming ever more isolated, even though he’s out of prison, he’s still paying for his actions.
Watching The Woodsman is a battle, how hard you have to fight that battle will probably depend on your existing bias on the subject, but the point of it is to make you address that bias. Whilst some might say we really don’t need a film that portrays sex offenders in even a moderately sympathetic light, the fact is they are people. Director Nicole Kassell has spent more time researching the subject than most that will watch the movie, and it seems clear that she doesn’t believe there are any easy answers, but it also seems like she doesn’t believe the way our society is dealing with them is perfect. Nobody is going to change things by ignoring them, and Kassell has done an excellent job of crafting a movie that will spark debate, not only with others, but also with yourself. The Woodsman is certainly not an easy film to watch, and doesn’t fall into the category of entertainment, but it is a powerful, well acted film that will make you think, and hopefully will go a long way to smashing the taboo that stops us from properly tackling this thorny issue. Some may see that as a lofty goal for a simple movie, but if there is one that can do it, The Woodsman is it.
The Picture and Sound
Unfortunately The Woodsman hasn’t arrived on DVD looking its best. Most of the boxes for quality have been checked, for some reason Alliance Atlantis haven’t taken it from a pristine print; in fact, it has come from quite a poor one. There are frequent, albeit minor, blemishes on the print - dust, sparkle and even some print damage are all visible, and it’s occasionally quite distracting when a flourish of imperfections spring up, and the colours also often seem quite muddy, though how much of this is deliberate is difficult to say. The audio is unspectacular - being a dialogue based film - and although both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 options are available the DTS inclusion is something of an extravagance as the sound design is so simple even those with high-end equipment will probably struggle to hear any improvement.
Commentary from Director Nicole Kassell
The Woodsman was Nicole Kassell’s first feature, so it follows that this would be her first commentary, and for a first timer - not to mention a solo commentator - she does quite well. It starts off shaky, being a little stunted and dry, but once she settles in she has plenty to talk about. Although she’s prone to over-analysing the minutia of shots the track is worth listening to just to hear her talk about the research she put into the movie. Clearly it was very important for her to not take a naive approach to the rather sensitive subject matter, and she spent a lot of time talking with both experts and real sex offenders, really trying to understand why they do what they do. It’s a brave thing to do, and it’s made both the movie and this commentary thought provoking experiences.
“Getting it Made” Featurette
This is a simple interview with the film’s producer Lee Daniels, who was promised the Earth by every studio in Hollywood after the success of his last film - Monster’s Ball - but found himself out in the cold as soon as he decided to make a film about a pedophile. Running for about 5 minutes he gives some insight into why he decided to make this movie instead of a more commercial project, as well as telling us how the pieces finally fell into place, strangely enough with the help of Jay-Z’s partner Damon Dash.
One deleted and two extended scenes are included, and while not revelatory they are interesting to see. Particularly a scene between Vickie and Walter where they discuss why he did what he did, and although the film certainly works better without it, given how much research Nicole Kassell put into the movie, it’s somewhat chilling to think that these are likely reasons provided by real sex offenders. The other extended scene - featuring Walter and Robin - ties up the movie’s biggest loose end, but leaving it in would have made the ending rather obvious, so it’s difficult to decide whether it should have remained in or not, but it’s good to see it on the disc.
I can’t remember a movie watching experience as genuinely uncomfortable as The Woodsman, though how much of a compliment that is I’m not sure. It’s certainly a thought provoking film, and whilst it’s good to see the subject tackled without the demonisation and over-reaction that usually accompanies it, I can’t help feeling that the filmmakers have been a little hopeful with the conclusions they draw. That said, if the real goal was to spark dialogue on a taboo subject, then they’ve succeeded greatly. As this is a film that will be talked about for a long, long time. The DVD is pretty basic, and it’s a shame the print is of somewhat poor quality, so this is a hard disc to recommend buying, especially as you may not want to sit through the film that often, but it is still a bold film that should be seen by as large an audience as possible.
Last updated: 26/04/2018 15:09:47