By John H. Foote
To be straight from the very beginning of this piece, Kevin Bacon portrays Walter, a pedophile just released from prison trying to make a life for himself. It is a very demanding, often difficult and uncomfortable film, but brilliant in its depiction of a man cast out from society by a disease he tries to control, that he wants to control, though driven by urges he does not understand himself. Rarely has a film been made with such unbridled courage.
Movies like this often struggle to find an audience because the subject matter is so polarizing. I go to the movies for many reasons, first and foremost being my obsession with cinema, the storytelling and the performances. But I also go to be educated and to be entertained, the former being what this film does. I neither support nor understand pedophilia, frankly, it turns my stomach, but I will never turn down a chance to learn.
Walter, just free after a 12-year stint in prison, is now a registered sex offender. He cannot be near schools or parks, his family refuses to see him, his friends have abandoned him except his brother-in-law, a decent blue collar guy portrayed with effortless kindness by a Benjamin Bratt.
Though he never raped or did harm (that he knows of) to the little girls, he like them to sit on his knee, or pulled them close to his groin so he could grind against them. The hope is that the kids never knew what was happening, but Walter did, and he knew it was wrong. He fought his urges, when released he is still fighting them, but given a second chance he takes advantage of it. We feel his anguish with every step he takes, with each breath he draws, he wears his shame like his windbreaker.
The Woodsman is undeniably dark, and takes very black turns, but there are also glimmers of hope throughout, as Walter struggles against his desires and tries to be normal, he does not wish to be doing what he was incarcerated for doing. He loves and misses his sister who can barely look at him, and feels a thousand shames for what he has done. Walter knows his desires are wrong, and fights to control them, but it appears he has been set up to fail. He lives across the street from a school, where the temptation is right outside his window. A hostile detective, well played by a smug Mos Def, keeps close tabs on him, waiting for him to re-offend, believing he will. Walter watches the school and notices a young man paying attention to a child, and sees through the ruse. The man is a predator.
He goes about his days with head down until he meets Vicki (Kyra Sedgewick) a pretty co-worker who takes a shine to him, becoming first his friend, then his lover. After telling her everything about himself she initially retreats, until she sees he is not to be feared, and he is trying to go right. A vicious co-worker discovers his secret and plasters his mug shot around the lumber yard, humiliating him. His saving grace is rescuing a child from the school predator, and though he left no trace, the detective knows it was him and backs off, viewing Walter with a degree of respect.
The most troublesome scenes in the film come with Walter’s friendship with a young girl, aged 10-12, he meets in the park. They banter back and forth and he comes dangerously close to going down that dark path, but does not, recognizing her father is molesting her in the same way Walter did his victims. He instructs her to tell someone, to get help, to never again do what he asks, recognizing in seeing her tears the pain he has caused his victims and their families.
Watching the film for the first time I did wonder if Walter was too good to be true, but as heinous a crime as this might be, there must be men who are deeply ashamed of what they have done and wish to be normal? His life, and possibly his victims, were ruined by his actions, he is certainly aware of that, and as he slowly builds back his shattered life, he fights those desires with everything he has.
The end of the film gives us hope for Walter and frankly we no longer see him as a monster, a testament to Bacon’s fearless performance. I suspect for actors the toughest roles to portray must be Adolf Hitler, Charles Manson and a pedophile, because how can you bring humanity to them? Portraying them with honesty is just the beginning.
Bacon does just that here, building the character slowly, brick by brick, letting us in, helping us understand his shame, his wanting never to do harm again. This is a triumph of screen acting that, due to the subject matter, the fickle Academy would never touch. Shame on them for passing up the opportunity to honour such a brilliant performance from a long-time actor still waiting for his first nomination. In a word, Bacon is astonishing, doing the finest work of his career. Rarely making eye contact with people, shy, walking hunched almost, wary (prison must have been hell) we can feel and see the shame in Walter. A brave, fearless, perfect performance.
Kyra Sedgewick, Bacon’s real-life wife, is excellent as the brave young woman who sees something evolving in Walter and takes a chance while Mos Def, a marvelous actor, is excellent as the bullying cop who fully expects Walter to re-offend.
Gently directed with great sensitivity and a clear eye by Nicole Kassell, The Woodsman is that rare treasure found in some films – bold, yet heartbreaking in its study of a man who served 12 years for a terrible crime, yet we find ourselves filled with the same hope as Walter that he can change.
Unsettling, deeply so, as it should be, but brilliant, The Woodsman feels like an impassioned howl of anguish from a man who is truly sorry for his crimes, and with the intake of each breath, is trying to atone.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.