A stunningly crafted work from first-time feature director Nicole Kassell, “The Woodsman” is a sober, penetrating account of a pedophile struggling to overcome his sexual attraction to young girls and construct a normal life. Avoiding black and white moral ground for a more complex, compassionate view, this unsettling yet redemptive drama depicts its protagonist as a man in a cage, as much a victim as an architect of his obsession. While the dark subject matter presents a significant marketing challenge, strong critical response and Kevin Bacon’s haunting performance should help this powerful film find an audience.
In addition to being an impressive bow for NYU graduate film program alumna Kassell, the project also represents an accomplished sophomore achievement for producer Lee Daniels, who follows “Monster’s Ball” with another uncompromising drama .
Adapted by Kassell and Steven Fechter from the latter’s play, the film is an uncommonly challenging narrative examination of the pedophile mindset, going far deeper than similarly nuanced yet more distancing portraits such as Dylan Baker’s character in “Happiness” or Brian Cox’s in “L.I.E.” It also represents a departure in being one of the few films to deal extensively with heterosexual pedophilia.
While the filmmakers by no means ask the audience to sympathize with the central figure, they do invite a degree of understanding for his inner torment that will be uncomfortable for many. In this aspect, “The Woodsman” adopts a more audacious approach than “Mystic River,” in which Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Brian Helgeland softened the psychology of the Tim Robbins character, downplaying the real key to his self-loathing provided in Dennis Lehane’s novel.
Recently released from a 12-year prison term, convicted sex offender Walter (Bacon) takes a job in a Philadelphia lumber yard and — in a strange twist that escapes no one — a modest apartment opposite a grade school, the only place in town a landlord would rent to him. His sister refuses any contact but his brother-in-law Carlos (Benjamin Bratt) remains a loyal friend. At work, Walter keeps to himself, but his withdrawn behavior is interpreted as arrogance by office clerk Mary-Kay (Eve), who begins digging for information about his past.
The first person to break through Walter’s shell is straight-talking Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick), a tough forklift driver, who has her own sexual and psychological scars. They begin a relationship, which endures even the revelation of Walter’s dark secret. But despite weekly therapy sessions, Walter’s sexual impulses prove hard to fight. Constant pressure from a cop (Mos Def) and animosity at work when Mary-Kay discloses his criminal background contribute to undermine the fragile equilibrium Walter battles to maintain.
Bacon and the filmmakers succeed in portraying Walter not as a monster but as a broken man desperately yearning for normalcy. This is conveyed also through his entirely credible relationship with Vickie, rendered with intensity and tenderness, particularly in intimately shot sex scenes that are both sensual and painful.
The film is disturbing without the need for explicitness, transmitting a hollow feeling of dread as Walter slips inexorably into old habits. The movie’s most upsetting and most beautifully handled scene is a prolonged exchange on a park bench between Walter and a 12-year-old girl (Hannah Pilkes). Her heartbreaking openness, bruising family experiences and corrupted idea of adult interaction force Walter to look beyond his desire, sparking a tenuous sense of optimism that carries through to the conclusion.
Deftly opened out to reveal no trace of its origins as a stage piece, the script supplies only sparing information but subtly investigates the psychological depths of its characters. It also takes on dark fairy tale shadings, notably in references to “Little Red Riding Hood.”
Bacon’s steely-eyed presence and sharp features have often been harnessed to communicate evil. That aspect of the actor is countered here by a gaunt, beaten look, extreme vulnerability and inwardly directed anger that make the character defy easy condemnation. Sedgwick also is terrific, bringing a real sense of Vickie’s less than serene past to a hardened woman still uncynical enough to be able to perceive something good within Walter.
Hip-hop artists-turned-actors Eve and Mos Def also contribute incisively sketched characters, and Bratt sympathetically conveys the difficult tightrope walked by a man who believes in Walter’s right to a second chance but is caught between family concerns and the awareness that his own pre-teen daughter could represent a temptation.
Kassell’s unfaltering control as a director is supported by Brian A. Kates and Lisa Fruchtman’s gorgeous, fluid editing, often intercutting between time frames to arresting effect; and by the muted textures of lenser Xavier Perez Grobet’s slightly desaturated visuals and smooth camerawork. Nathan Larson’s moody electronic score effectively enhances the gripping psychological drama.