The Woodsman Review
As should always be the case, The Woodsman’s opening credits provide ample insight into the film ahead. Of course, there are the names themselves – a female director; the producer of Monster’s Ball; hip-hop entrepreneur Damon Dash as one of the executives – but the sensible typeface and images they unfold over are equally important. The editing is elliptical but precise, occasionally freeze framing the action, and always to the rhythm of Nathan Larson’s fine score. What we’re being told is that this is serious filmmaking and considered (perhaps calculated?) at that – we’re no doubt aware of the subject matter, yet this most definitely is not going to be a spurious exercise in sensationalism.
Kevin Bacon plays Walter (the name recalling another Walter, that of Stephen Frears’ even handed, delicate look at mental illness), a man just out of prison following a 12 year sentence of child abuse on young girls. He’s returned home to Philadelphia to find only his brother-in-law (Benjamin Bratt) speaking to him and an unassuming job at the local lumberyard. Yet The Woodsman isn’t concerned so much with plot as it is with character study, albeit of a paedophile. It does this mainly through Walter himself rather than those around him and as such is a low-key affair. We see him at work, speaking to his therapist, engaging in a tentative relationship with workmate Vicki (Kyra Sedgwick), and little else. But at the same time, the screenplay by director Nicole Kassell and original playwright Steven Fechter never shies away from his past. Whilst Walter is set up as a character with whom we are asked in some way to connect with, there is no whitewashing. We know that he’s guilty of his crimes and never get the sense that he is a fully reformed character. Nor do we learn that his past offences are minor – we learn of a number of girls and their ages.
Not that this is a downbeat wallow either. Kassell and Fechter take an even handed approach to their material meaning that the abuse – though undoubtedly integral – is not the only factor in Walter’s life. The Woodsman is highly subtle in its dealing of the character with the information coming in drips so that a picture slowly builds, one that is neither conventionally good nor evil and also leaves for surprises. Indeed, Kassell can even be quite playful at times, allowing for moments of humour and even Parliament on the soundtrack.
Of course, any such intricacies can vanish entirely without the right actor in the role, and Bacon proves a surprising, though undoubtedly successful, choice. He’d previously essayed a similar type in Barry Levinson’s Sleepers, but that was very much a big “Hollywood villain” part to rank alongside his turn in Murder in the First, i.e. almost completely devoid of a recognisable emotion. There’s none of that here thankfully, nor is there any of the star pizzazz found in Footloose, say, or Tremors, or even JFK; it’s as though Bacon has had to remove any traces of Kevin Bacon in order to take this role on. He’s scraped away the gloss and turns in a quiet, understated performance, one that’s matched by the muted photography. Courtesy of both we’re able to truly negotiate his face, looking at every sign of age and, most importantly, the eyes. Indeed, much of The Woodsman is predicated on the flickers of emotion we see so it undoubtedly helps that Bacon is matched by equally fine work from Sedgwick (as an aside, The Woodsman is vastly superior to their first on-screen pairing, the lamentable Pyrates) as well as hip hop artistes Eve (as the lumberyard’s secretary) and Mos Def (as a local detective).
The inclusion of the latter into The Woodsman’s narrative does introduce some problems, however. There is the occasional impression that Kassell and Fechter still don’t feel entirely comfortable enough with Walter and as such have had to provide a number of other unsavoury characters as a counterbalance. Thus we have Def’s detective who, whilst not an all out bad person, clearly has a nasty edge to him. Plus there’s another paedophile that’s active in the street below Walter’s window. Nicknamed Candy, this character isn’t granted any of the attention that Walter is afforded and as such is easily categorised as the “bad” paedophile. There’s nothing especially wrong in this in itself, but it does make the implication that Walter is therefore a “good” paedophile and so The Woodsman begins to look a little too calculated. To a degree, such a plot device can be understood from a narrative perspective inasmuch as it provides certain dynamics, yet to do so as a means of providing some kind of belated, and deeply unconvincing, cathartic redemption can only hinder what is otherwise an unexpectedly fine achievement.
The Woodsman comes to the UK DVD market as a region 0 release. Presented anamorphically at a ratio of 1.78:1, the film’s bleached out, muted photography results in an intentional grain, one which occasionally (but only occasionally) isn’t always handled to perfection. Indeed, there are minor instances of artefacting which hamper what would otherwise be an outstanding presentation. The colour tones are faithfully recreated whilst the image has the clarity you’d expect from such a new release. With regards to its soundtrack, Tartan have provided The Woodsman in its original DD5.1 as well as supplying optional DD2.0 and DTS mixes. Unsurprisingly it is the 5.1 offering which proves the best choice, firstly because it is the intended soundtrack after all, but also because the stereo means that Larson’s score seems less emphatic, whilst the DTS makes little discernible difference. That said, all three are technically sound in handling both the score and the dialogue.
Complementing the film are a number of special features, the majority of which are deserving of their inclusion (only the theatrical trailer seems like filler). The major extra, of course, is the commentary by director/co-writer Kassell. Speaking throughout The Woodsman’s duration, Kassell is not always scene specific but does allow everyone – from Bacon to Larson – a mention. Much of what she says is interesting and also produces the odd gem of trivia (the opening credits were wholly influenced by Peckinpah’s The Getaway), but she does have a tendency to concentrate more fully on the technical side of the production than the material itself. With most film’s this wouldn’t make too much of difference, but in The Woodsman’s case you can’t help but wish she’d engage with the subject matter a little more.
In this respect the collected interviews (which, we are informed, are all UK exclusives) prove more fulfilling. Kassell, executive producer Damon Dash and actors Bacon and Sedgwick (though Bacon also served as an executive) are all spoken to individually on a number of issues. Understandably this results in some crossover, though much of what they say is of interest. Certainly all four answer intelligently making this far removed from EPK-style fluff, even if some of the questions tend towards the banal.
The ‘Getting It Made’ featurette is also essentially an interview and chats solely to producer Lee Daniels. Given his differing role to those interviewed elsewhere he also proves to be an interesting listen as he traces the film from financing through to the finished product.
The last of the noteworthy extras are the three deleted/extended scenes. Sadly there is no context or optional commentary for any of them, though they are mostly self-explanatory and the last two reveal themselves to be especially interesting. The first of these sees Walter directly discuss why he abuses young girls and was perhaps cut because its emotions are a little overt. The second extends the park bench scene near the end of the picture and courtesy of only a few lines of dialogue changes the entire tone. It’s fascinating stuff, though in this case some kind of explanation for the excisions would have been welcomed.
None of the extra features come with optional subtitles, English or otherwise.