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The Woodsman takes place in a world where few children go unmolested. If the kids running around the schoolyard aren’t in danger from the freshly paroled pedophile who conveniently lives across the street, they’ll certainly be lured by the yet-to-be-caught pervert who lurks near the playground at recess. When the aforementioned felon falls in love, it happens to be with a woman who got “poked around” by her brothers while growing up. And when he finally gives up on the idea of a having a normal relationship and follows an adolescent girl into the woods…well, turns out her daddy sometimes asks her to sit on his lap, too.
With this pile-on of contrivances, writer-director Nicole Kassell turns her Sundance Grand Jury Prize–nominated debut from the lean, powerful drama it promises to be into something that could have been brought to us by Disney Educational Productions. And dammit, Kevin Bacon deserves better. The actor, whose last major role was as conflicted cop Sean Devine in the similarly toned (and, to some degree, themed) Mystic River, brings the same low-key intensity to The Woodsman’s Walter, a convict who has spent the past 12 years in jail for molesting girls. His boyish Footloose face now roughly lined, Bacon again deftly hovers between bad and good, managing to make sympathetic a character whose predilections are universally reviled.
Initially, Kassell’s rather spare storytelling helps. We don’t actually learn any details of Walter’s crime until about a quarter of the way into the 87-minute drama. The film opens with scenes of Walter’s fingerprinting and mug shots; some paperwork later informs that the prisoner is being released on supervised parole. Walter is then shown taking steps to rebuild his life as he rents an apartment and starts a job at a lumber yard.
Walter is quiet, polite, and slightly hesitant as he tries to start fresh: Clearly burdened by the fact that, in many of his everyday interactions, his history precedes him, Walter acts so gun-shy it seems possible that he was wrongly accused. Whether listening to his new boss (David Alan Grier) lecture that he doesn’t want any trouble or accepting the pity visits of Carlos (Benjamin Bratt), the brother-in-law who tries to soft-pedal his wife’s refusal to see her brother, Walter carries himself as a melancholy outcast who wishes desperately to just belong again. His most frequent question to himself—as well as to his court-appointed therapist (Michael Shannon)—is “When will I be normal?”
Despite the felonies we eventually learn Walter is indeed guilty of, The Woodsman’s main character turns out to be the film’s only aspect that doesn’t seem overdone. Its slight running time and information-withholding narrative, for example, don’t result in elegance but in too many developments that seem serendipitous and stagy. (Walter is rarely shown in his apartment without someone knocking at his door, for example—or, as on two occasions, without visitors somehow waiting for him inside when he comes home.) In an embarrassing bit of miscasting, Walter’s love interest, tough-as-nails lumber handler Vickie, is played by Bacon’s wife, the cute-as-a-button Kyra Sedgwick, who needs more than a bandanna and a potty mouth to seem appropriately butched up. And a convicted sex offender managing to set up home right across the street from a school post– Megan’s Law? Please.
Kassell and co-scripter Steven Fechter, on whose play the film is based, do attempt to explain away some of these unrealities. Walter tells Carlos that his apartment building is the only place that would rent to him, and a conversation that Vickie has with her new beau about how “weird” it is that he takes the bus leads him to comment, “Not as weird as a sharp, young, good-looking woman working in a lumber yard.” But such ham-fisted acknowledgments don’t make it any easier to buy the details—or, for that matter, The Woodsman’s histrionic implication that every street corner harbors a child molester (or two).
Kassell also missteps with her directorial flourishes, including melodramatic freezes (a child’s cartwheel, a suspicious secretary’s glower) and odd perspectives (a couple of shots of seemingly upside-down bus steps). The most cringe-inducing touch, however, is a scene in which Candy (Kevin Rice), the man whom Walter has watched hanging around the school, finally talks a boy into his car: Kassell gives Walter a sportscasterish play-by-play to recite as the incident takes place, imposing an inadvertently comedic tone on a scene that’s obviously meant to be disturbing.
The Woodsman does have a couple of worthy moments, however, as Walter faces harassment from his co-workers once they find out about his crime (“People have a right to know,” one determined spreader of the gossip says) and gets closer to Vickie, who tries to find out his “deep, dark secret” and then laughs when he tells her, apparently thinking it’s a joke. Most compelling, though, is Walter’s visible struggle with himself: He knows that what he did is shameful, but when he confesses his crime to Vickie and says, “It’s not what you think. I never hurt them,” it’s apparent that he doesn’t believe his actions were actually wrong. He seems to express disgust as he watches Candy scope out a victim, yet he still checks out girls’ asses at the mall and, in a chilling scene, eventually propositions a young bird-watcher (Hannah Pilkes) in the woods. (Though the line “Are you a bird-watcher, too?” gets another unintended laugh.)
Bacon makes Walter forever skittish as he tries to blend in wherever he goes. On the bus, Walter’s eyes dart back and forth to potential prey; at the mall, he follows a girl into a store but jumps and hurries out when a clerk asks if he needs help; at work, a glance from his boss and a finger-point from a co-worker have Walter holding his breath, though he’s done nothing wrong and it’s actually someone else they’re looking at. Among the rest of the cast, only Mos Def as Walter’s keeper, Sgt. Lucas, can match the quality of Bacon’s performance. Though his scenes are few, Def’s detective is captivating, from the perfectly pitched disgust he shows for Walter on his visits to his quietly delivered yet emotional monologue employing the Little Red Riding Hood metaphor that gives the film its title.
Neither actor can save The Woodsman’s rapid and precipitous decline, however, which bottoms out in a last chapter that is supposed to be open-ended but is actually just abrupt. In this case, that’s merely more evidence that difficult subject matter is no guarantee against facile filmmaking.CP