Two Degrees of Story Separation

Kevin Bacon's fine performance as a child molester can't overcome this wishy-washy script

Kevin Bacon's people have been pimping The Woodsman as his great performance, and are positioning him for a Best Actor Oscar. Meanwhile, they've been downplaying the film's unpalatable subject. Bacon does give a good performance, but the film winds up with enough flaws that I can't see it doing all that well, and couldn't even if it wasn't about the special feelings and redemptive moments in the life of a convicted child molester.

Bacon plays Walter, a man who prefers the company of women under the age of 13. In exchange for his misunderstood love, he spends 12 years in jail and then gets a job cutting wood. But what he'd really like is to be a woodsman, like in Little Red Riding Hood, which is to say someone who, instead of raping young girls, heroically saves them from bigger, badder wolves.

Getting an apartment across the street from a grade school (always a good idea for a pedophile!), he sits and watches the children come and go while he does the same. He also watches with rising fury as a man does exactly what Walter himself would like to be doing, i.e., stalking young children. It's your basic man-confronts-himself-in-the-form-of-another story, and if you missed the obviousness of the point, there's even a scene in which Walter sees his own face on this stranger's head.

In typical Important Film fashion, there's a lot of that kind of mediocre psychologizing, and a lot of long shots that just show off cinematographer Xavier Perez Grobet's talent. It's a not inconsiderable talent, though. Working with a low-res format (it looks like 16mm, though I can't say for sure) and using such old-school techniques as freeze frame and jump cutting, the effect is effective, in that it conveys something cheap and tawdry in Walter's low-rent life.

There's also a standout performance from Mos Def, whose name does not lie: He truly is the mos' def. His performance in Monster's Ball was the best thing about that intensely overrated film, and here, his almost supernatural naturalness plays to good effect. He portrays the police officer sent to look after Walter, and if it weren't for some script problems, his scenes would be the best in the film.

As it stands, though, the best moment comes when Walter follows a young girl to a park and sits down to talk to her. When he uses a sad and lonely voice to ask this sad and lonely girl to sit on his lap, everything stops. Unfortunately, the scene loses force when Walter confronts the horror of his criminal desires. It's a way-too-standard Hollywood redemption moment: Instead of doing what a pedophile would no doubt do, he becomes the woodsman of fairy tale, which I think is how the scriptwriters thought they would deal with themselves if they had the kind of horrifying feelings that Walter has.

I didn't buy it, though it's at least an interesting attempt. And I appreciated that they didn't completely simplify Walter's transformation. He remains throughout the film a very sick man, and in scenes in which he talks about his illness, he makes it clear that he still wants to rape little girls, and still thinks they want him to do it. That seemed much truer than the moments when he overcomes his desires.

It's unfortunate that director/writer Nicole Kassell fell for this, because her cast gives her a lot of good material to work with. David Allen Grier, who's probably best known for making fun of homosexuals on In Living Color, really establishes himself as a dramatic actor here. Like Mos Def, he relies on a complete naturalism to vanish quietly into a quiet role.

And Eve, who you wouldn't immediately pick as the next Katharine Hepburn, is scene-stealing in a small role as a woman who wants to find out what makes Walter so strange and withdrawn. She also lies perfectly within character, enhancing a sense of threat by appearing to be the most normal person on earth. Not what I'd have expected from the woman who sang "We on That Shit."

On the down side, Kyra Sedgwick is a little too stock in her role as the damaged woman who falls in love with pedophile Walter. I'm glad Sedgwick and Bacon have a real marriage--not one of those cheap publicity things that Pitt and Aniston or the Clintons had--but that may not be a good reason to stick her in a movie that's beyond her range.

She's not what sinks this film, though. The problem is that this movie is too convinced that it's Powerful and Important and, most horrifyingly, Poignant. If it weren't for the constant tug of redemption leading this script astray, and the stock longing that its central character exhibits, this could have been a really interesting look at someone who's beyond redemption. Lots of the script hints at this, especially the way Walter continues to stalk little girls. I get the sense that the filmmakers chickened out, and decided that a movie about a recidivist pedophile wasn't going to fly with American filmgoers, so they gave him a heroic streak to save him, not from himself, but from being in a film with no commercial potential. Unfortunately, in trying to have it both ways, they'll probably wind up with neither.

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