The Woodsman Review
The last five paragraphs of this review are separated from the rest and contain major spoilers.
The thorny issue of paedophilia is examined in The Woodsman, an ambitious and intelligent film which features a career-best performance by Kevin Bacon. It isn't a perfect movie - I had difficulties with the ending and I'll discuss them in detail in the last few paragraphs. For the most part, however, this is a compelling piece of drama which bravely confronts a topic cinema rarely goes near. There's a good reason for that. Most people won't want to watch a film about a child molester and that's understandable. Parts of this film are indeed quite harrowing - paedophilia is an unpleasant subject. Of course that doesn't mean a serious film about it is not worthwhile.
For those who are able to stomach it, The Woodsman gives us an intimate look at a kind of criminal we hear about constantly but understand very little about. First time director Nicole Kassell and writer Steven Fechter neither demonise their subject nor whitewash him. To do either would be to trivialise paedophilia and insult its victims. Walter, the character played by Kevin Bacon is simply observed, the way serial killer Aileen Wuornos was observed in last year's Monster. He's a human being struggling with an impulse to commit a particularly vile crime. That's not to excuse him. He deserves pity for having an impulse he did not ask for but the result of him giving in to it is the destruction of a young life. The rights of paedophiles versus the right of society to protect itself against them is an argument that provokes the most heated debate. To the great credit of the film-makers, The Woodsman presents both sides fairly.
Walter is a newly paroled child molester who's spent twelve years in prison for abusing girls aged between ten and twelve. Walter wants to put his crimes behind him and live a normal life. He has an apartment in a new town, he's found a job at a lumber mill and he's seeing a therapist to try and deal with his paedophilia. Although he's naturally a loner, he does have people who care for him. His brother-in-law (Benjamin Bratt) comes to see him, even though his sister won't. There's also a woman at work who's taken an interest. Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick) is an outsider herself, a lone woman working eight hour shifts surrounded by macho jerks, and this quiet stranger seems appealingly different to her.
As much as Walter wants in his own words to be normal, the odds are stacked against him. At work, his cover is blown when he snubs the wrong secretary (Eve) and she noses through his personnel file. At home, a police detective, Sgt Lucas (Mos Def) turns up unannounced, invites himself in and interrogates Walter about a sexual assault in the area. He makes his attitude to child abusers abundantly clear. There is also the matter of Walter's paedophilia. It's been twelve years since he acted on it but the feelings haven't gone away. Across the street from his apartment is a primary school.
Kevin Bacon's work in this film is extraordinary. He's always been a courageous actor, prepared to take controversial and unglamorous roles like the male prostitute in JFK and the abused prisoner in Murder In The First. He's actually played a paedophile before, albeit an entirely hateful one in the revenge drama, Sleepers. In The Woodsman, he's faced with the challenge of playing a character who's committed similar acts and making him sympathetic. He succeeds. No matter what opinions you bring to the movie, thanks to Bacon's performance, you can't help but feel for Walter and want him to overcome his urges. It's quite an achievement and Bacon cannot be overpraised.
The way he portrays Walter is fascinating and quite believable. I've read articles about child molesters describing how childlike they can appear and Bacon gives Walter a childlike quality. When he's frustrated in his therapist's office or threatened by Sgt Lucas, Walter looks like a little boy in trouble, frightened and seething with resentment at his situation but unable to express his feelings or simply afraid to speak. Bacon also does an excellent job of suggesting the wall this man has built around himself. In a crucial scene with his brother-in-law in which Walter misunderstands something (or does he?), we understand why he's so reluctant to lower it.
The film's sympathetic treatment of Walter extends to the other major characters. Vickie makes a decision half-way through the film that is difficult to accept but people often do things for inscrutable reasons. Kyra Sedgwick plays her with such conviction that we believe in her and any puzzlement is directed at the character, not the script. Mos Def's Sgt Lucas initially comes off as heavy-handed, credibly so, but he's given a monologue later on that lets us absolutely understand why he feels the way he does. The movie doesn't dismiss his frustration with the way predators like serial rapists and paedophiles are released to more often than not re-offend and destroy more lives. Director Nicole Kassell has a knack for casting and she works well with actors. Extensive use of close-ups prevent us from distancing ourselves from the characters and the material.
It would be impossible to discuss the ending of The Woodsman without revealing it so I'm going to do so below. If you plan to see the film, leave the rest of the review till you've seen it.
The ending of The Woodsman hinges on the following scene:
Walter has tried throughout the film to keep his urges in check but he's been unable to resist following children around, in malls and on the street. He follows a young girl into a wooded park where she is birdwatching and starts to chat to her. She sits beside him on a park bench, they talk some more and then Walter asks her if she would like to sit on his lap. The girl says she wouldn't and in the conversation that follows, she reveals that her father also likes her to sit on his lap and that he abuses her. She's clearly traumatised by her father's behaviour. The girl says she'll sit on Walter's lap if he really wants her to but he tells her no, he doesn't. The implication is that Walter has finally come to terms with the consequences of his actions.
The scene is powerful and moving and disturbing and yet I didn't believe it. I didn't believe the knowledge that children are unwilling sexual partners and that they are damaged by adults who take advantage of them could come as a revelation to a man who had been an active paedophile and spend twelve years in prison for it. The Woodsman never reveals what Walter actually did to his victims but apparently there were several girls involved and, given Walter's intelligence, how could he have missed what must have been obvious: that they wouldn't have been enjoying it? We're not talking here about the statutory rape of a fifteen-year-old who might have been naive but willing. Walter's victims were aged ten to twelve. They wouldn't have been willing, they would have been terrified. Did none of them seem distressed like the girl on the bench? Wouldn't their statements to the police and their testimony at Walter's trial have gotten through to him? Wouldn't the counsellor he's seeing have raised the issue?
If this had been the first girl Walter had tried anything with, the scene would have rung true. The myth that children enjoy sexual encounters with adults is something with which paedophiles try to kid themselves and each other. In fact, despite my misgivings about the way the park bench scene works in the film, it will have served a purpose if it gets the message that this myth is the most dangerous kind of bullshit across to any real Walters or would-be Walters in the audience.
Dramatically however, I think the ending is contrived, unlikely and disappointing. A more honest way to end the film would have been with the girl bolting as soon as Walter mentioned her sitting on his lap and with Walter being arrested and sent back to prison. I could also have accepted Walter sitting down with the girl in the park but overcoming his urges and feeling stronger for it. As it stands, what happens is maybe what should happen - what we would like to happen - but in a film that's otherwise gone to great lengths to portray its subject matter realistically, it stands out as wishful thinking.