The Woodsman (2004)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Nicole Kassell

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

No matter what country and culture, most children learn rather quickly about a scary creature many call the boogie man. The perverse delights of being scared continue into adulthood for many of us, but for others, the boogie man is real. Child molesters, the real boogie men and women who plague children, have maimed and ruined lives. The danger is real, but in the late 1980s, fears about sexual predators grew into a wild hysteria that launched several, high-profile witch hunts, the most infamous of which involved the owners of the Little Rascals Day Care Center in Edenton, North Carolina. Those times have branded pedophiles as the lowest of the low, subhuman, amoral animals who prey on innocence in the worst possible way.

The Woodsman dares to take on this orthodoxy of pure evil by showing audiences the world from the pedophile’s point of view, forcing us to face the fact that pedophiles are complex people, not monstrosities. What The Woodsman offers its protagonist, Walter (Kevin Bacon), is a chance to see the world through the eyes of the victims of sexual predators like himself. Both Walter and we are better off for the opportunity to see a reality we’d rather not acknowledge exists.

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After 12 years in prison, Walter is presented with all of the rules for pedophiles, such as getting registered, living no closer than 300 feet from the entrance of any facility that serves children, and pursuing no work involving children. Walter takes an apartment across from a K-6 grade school that technically meets the requirement, which Walter proves by pacing off the distance of 320 feet. He looks at the locked chain link fence to the playground and suddenly sees a red ball roll across the yard and land at his feet. The memory of the crime that put him in prison, represented by the ball, haunts him throughout the movie.

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He works at a lumber yard, employed grudgingly by its owner Bob (David Alan Grier) because Walter was one of his father’s best workers before his conviction. Walter tries to keep to himself, but Bob’s secretary, Mary-Kay (Eve), sits with him at lunch and tries to flirt with him. Walter definitively brushes her off, but earns the kind regard of forklift driver Vicki (Kyra Sedgwick), for whom he shows concern after she is harassed by the men at the yard. She offers him a lift home and instantly jumps into bed with him, having failed to get him to reveal his dark secret.

Walter visits a psychotherapist (Michael Shannon), whom he hopes will make him normal. When asked what he considers normal, Walter says simply, “Being able to talk to a girl, stand near a girl, and have it mean nothing more.”

Walter is visited by his brother-in-law Carlos (Benjamin Bratt) and learns that his sister Annette wants nothing to do with him. In fact, she sends back a cherry desk Walter designed and built for them as a wedding present. Carlos is, perhaps, looking after Walter for Annette, who can’t help but care about him despite everything, but he threatens Walter’s life when Walter wonders whether Carlos isn’t perhaps a little too fond of their daughter. Walter is so hyper-aware of his feelings, so vigilant about slipping, that he sees potential pedophiles everywhere. He also happens to see a real one (Kevin Rice) stalking the boys at the school across the street, and keeps notes on “Candy’s” actions in the journal the psychotherapist suggests he keep.

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Nothing about Walter’s life is easy or unguarded: his thoughts are haunted, his observations remain anchored to his obsession, his outing by Mary-Kay a painful reminder that society will always despise and threaten him, his relationship with Vicki made possible by the fact that she was molested by her three brothers, providing her with a curious sympathy for Walter. Ultimately, however, Walter is “saved” by seeing himself through a would-be victim’s eyes. Robin (Hannah Pilkes), a girl he has watched and finally decided to make contact with, reveals through her tears that her father has already done what Walter intends to do, many times over. “Do you still want me to sit on your lap? I will. I don’t mind.” But Walter does.

The film could have seemed more schematic as a redemption film if not for the remarkably nuanced performance of Kevin Bacon, whose inner torment is actually painful to watch. It’s easy to feel sympathy for Walter while still seeing that he has been warped from a very early age, most likely molested his sister when he was 12, and will never be normal. When he and Vicki make love, he has her sit on his lap. Like most child molesters, he idealizes children, actually loves them. “I never hurt them,” he says with conviction, but of course, he doesn’t see how his version of love hurts them very deeply. Vicki and Robin open his eyes to the reality of his crime. He opens our eyes to the crime we commit by dehumanizing pedophiles. “I’m not a monster,” he screams in despair. It’s true. Although this is pure speculation on my part, if our society weren’t so warped about sex and gender in general, perhaps there would be fewer people like Walter. Certainly watching grown men harassing Vicki should be an object lesson on the continuum of abuse in the world; there’s nothing normal about those men either, but their behavior is, for the most part, socially sanctioned.

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The script is well constructed, but a little gimmicky, for example, making Mary-Kay’s scorned-woman routine the impetus for going after Walter. Yet, the cast takes these sketchy moments and makes them believable. Eve was a wonder in this part; I wonder why we haven’t seen more of her in other films. Mos Def has a bit of a throwaway role as Walter’s parole officer, but handles even some of his more “happy ending” moments pretty well. Grier shows an entirely different hand than his usual lighthearted roles; he’s wonderful. Not surprisingly, Bacon and Sedgwick work very well together, using the intimacy and trust of their real-life marriage to make the trust Walter and Vicki put in each other believable.

This is a hard film to watch, and many people may be put off by the sympathetic treatment it accords its main character. But this story doesn’t take any easy roads out. Instead, it chooses to dignify the people who are affected by pedophilia by retaining their complex humanity.

  • fox spoke:
    4th/05/2009 to 12:12 am

    Hey Marilyn-
    I haven’t seen this movie since it was in theaters, so forgive me for my poor recall of specifics from the movie, but I’ll try my best b/c I think this is a great topic…
    I didn’t like The Woodsman b/c I thought it tried to intellectualize something that is pretty cut-and-dry for me: I think pedophiles are sub-humans. As with any sexual desire, I believe that pedophilia is something ingrained and not a choice, but it is a desire that has no place in a civilized society. And, if that desire makes a man pick up kids and force them into sexual acts then I can see that person as nothing less than a “monster”.
    The thing about The Woodsman is that it tries to work around that hard opinion by not letting us in on what Walter actually did. I think this is a cop-out for a movie that wants us to see things from the perspective of a pedophile. It’s easy to feel the urge to sympathize with Walter b/c he looks harmless in his hooded sweater and gentle movements. This is wear the film kinda just feels like propaganda.
    Now, having said that, I think you’re right about the hysteria factor. When I hear of a 30 year old high school teacher being labled as a sex-offender for life (forever put on watch lists, has signs in the yard, etc.) for sleeping with his 17 year old student, I get angry. Or, if a man takes pictures of his granddaughter in a tub and has to justify them to cops, I get angry. Or, if a 19 year old consensually sleeps with a 16 year old and is charged with statuatory rape, I get angry.
    But those things are 100 times away from a man who videotapes sex with a 5-year old. Even though the line gets blurred as we approach what separates true pedophilia from, say, questionable or unethical acts (as mentioned in the above paragraph) I think if a true pedophile acts on his or her urges than they need to be removed from society. I question even trying to understand a true pedophile – through art or what have you – b/c no matter the understanding, the act should always give us the same result: prison.
    Back to things in the film. I agree with you on Eve and Mos Def. Eve was good in both of the Barbershop movies and Mos Def was great in both 16 Blocks and Be Kind Rewind. I hope they both keep up the acting.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/05/2009 to 9:06 am

    Fox – I respect your opinion, and my review is not an apologia for pedophilia. That’s something I want to make clear at the outset. But what this film does, I think, is create a space for humanity that I think is necessary. I understand that you don’t feel that way, and perhaps pedophiles should be removed from society for good. I’m not an expert on this. I don’t agree with you that a 17 year old is an adult; her 30-year-old teacher should not be having sex with her because of that fact and because there is an unfair balance of power in a relationship like that.
    During the Little Rascals period, I found the hysteria about protecting children positively bizarre. There was a rapist behind every tree, yet nobody seemed to see the chidren society was hurting–21% of them live in poverty today–schools falling to pieces, children being sexualized by the rise of celebrities like Britney Spears. We’re a very f-ed up society, in my opinion.

  • Rick spoke:
    4th/05/2009 to 12:48 pm

    During the Little Rascals period, I found the hysteria about protecting children positively bizarre. There was a rapist behind every tree, yet nobody seemed to see the chidren society was hurting–21% of them live in poverty today–schools falling to pieces, children being sexualized by the rise of celebrities like Britney Spears. We’re a very f-ed up society, in my opinion.
    And that’s the reason people latch onto pedophilia: society loves having one person to blame (they’re called scapegoats, of course.) Rather than pay attention to the 21% of children in poverty and fix that — which would actually require meaningful change, and maybe change out of their pockets — they fixate on a bogey men. Typical displacement behavior so they don’t have to fact the real issues. It’s why the twin issues of abortion and gay marriage dominated the 2000 and 2004 general elections, rather than any meaningful reform such as how to fix the shameful way our society operates.
    For the record, and I’m sorry folks feel the other way, but pedophiles are human beings. They had a mother and a father with dreams for them, they have dreams for themselves. However their condition came about, it was not their fault. The fact that folks can’t find room in their hearts to pity them is part of what’s wrong with our f-ed up society.

  • Fox spoke:
    4th/05/2009 to 1:36 pm

    Marilyn-
    I know you weren’t apologizing for the behavior at all, I just don’t see the need to treat a person who rapes children with kid gloves. I’m not saying you’re doing that either, but that’s the impression that The Woodsman kinda leaves me with. It’s a film that wants to humanize pedophiles while showing us quite possibly the cuddliest pedophile ever on screen.
    And I didn’t mean to imply that a relationship between a 17 year old and 30 year old is ideal or ethical or moral (I don’t feel comfortable saying it is or it isn’t in my current place), but just wanted to express that as “sexual offenders” go, I think that is miles apart from a 30 year old being with a 5 year old. The latter is cleary a pedophile to me. The former, I think, depending on circumstances, is much more blurry. I know we probably disagree on that, and I respect that… not trying to argue it, just wanted to make myself a little more clear.
    Lastly, I think you and Rick’s hearts are in the right place, and, frankly, I admire your ability to feel for people I see as lesser humans. Perhaps it’s a flaw in myself, but the way I come to terms with feeling how I feel is that I try and place myself in the situation of one of these criminals doing something to someone in my life. If that happened, I can’t imagine ever feeling pity for someone who showed no pity for my loved one.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/05/2009 to 2:07 pm

    I don’t see the need to treat a pedophile with kid gloves, but maybe not with whips either. I think Grier’s character probably came down about where I would have – giving the guy a chance to make a living, protecting his right to privacy, but not being more than a boss to him. If Walter is kind of cuddly, then perhaps that is only the writer overcompensating for a character who starts at less than zero. I don’t think the writing was the sharpest, in any case.
    Anger is a proper emotion, I think, but at some point, where does it get you? I personally would have a much, much bigger problem with someone who raped his own daughter or son than I would with a guy like Walter doing it. Talk about the ultimate betrayal.

  • Rick spoke:
    4th/05/2009 to 4:16 pm

    Fox, I didn’t mean to single you out, I respect you too much for that.
    But let’s put it this way: it’s not academic for me. I have more reason than most to hate pedophiles; people very close to me were the victims of one, and I knew the perpetrator very well. My wife and I were instrumental in turning this person in, and confronting him with his wife … I do not cavalierly say these things, nor am I without experience to back them up.
    Certainly I am not in favor of coddling them; I was as I say instrumental in taking one off the street. I am in favor of protecting our children from them. It’s just that when we can’t see their humanity, and refuse to acknowledge it, then we lose a little of our own (I know — it’s a cliche) and we are that little bit closer to knee-jerk extremism ourselves.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/05/2009 to 4:36 pm

    I, too, knew a confessed pedophile, though the confession is open to question due to extremely bad advice from his public defender. It was hard for me to imagine him hurting a child, so meek a man is he. He is, in fact, borderline retarded, with absolutely no social skills (imagine someone as withdrawn as Walter and a lot geekier). But kids really liked him, so it’s possible he sought them to fulfill urges that no adult woman would have lavished on him. I haven’t ruled it out at all, and think it’s probably true. He’s kind of a textbook example of a “cuddly” pedophile portrayed in this film and someone I have often felt compassion and pity for.

  • fox spoke:
    4th/05/2009 to 6:20 pm

    Rick-
    I didn’t take it that way. I just took it as a furthering of the conversation…
    And, trust me, I don’t think you (or Marilyn) say these things cavalierly. Both of you have sound opinions and make valid points. I chalk something like this up alongside the death penalty debate, something that I’ve gone back-and-forth on throughout my life because I think both sides make valid points.
    I get your point on the issue of “humanity”, that seeing a pedophile as less-than-human only brings us down to their level, but I can’t convince myself of that. I accept that these people aren’t just sexual deviants 24/7, that they have non-sexual human experiences like the rest of us, and that they are just warped in one or more emotional or psychological areas, but the fact that they are predators to other human beings makes me think of them as monsters and sub-humans.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/05/2009 to 7:40 pm

    Fox – To what level do you take predatory behavior? I’m serious. Someone who scams someone out of their life savings is a predator. There are so many ways people prey on others, from psychological abuse of every stripe to physical intimidation. Are they all subhuman? I think this may be how it’s easier for me to see everyone as human because so many people behave atrociously. Somehow, however, we draw a line in the sand on some of them. I don’t find that so easy to do. In fact, what I see as predatory behavior, others see no problem at all, such as our conversation about prostitution on Greg’s site.

  • fox spoke:
    5th/05/2009 to 2:19 am

    Marilyn-
    I would definitely see someone like, say, Bernie Madoff as a predator, no doubt, and would also call him a “sub-human” (probably nastier words than that had he done to me what he did to his victimes). Perhaps that kind of labeling is just a use of negative slang words to make me feel comfortable in putting up a wall between “us” and “them”, but I agree that it gets into various degrees of line drawing.
    For example, is a dude that scams a cashier out of $100 bucks being a predator? Sure, I would say so. But are they on the level of a “scumbag” like Madoff or a child rapist. No way, not to me. To me, the gradation in grandiosity bewtween what the $100 dude did and what Madoff is what draws that line, but I’m not society’s line drawer, so, as you rightly said, it’s a difficult definition.
    Still, I think it can sometimes help with a person’s sanity if they can draw their own lines to live by. Nobody’s perfect – lord knows I’m not! – and our lines will shift with time, but, for me personally, I think it provides a comfortable structure that, say, a looser set of boundaries wouldn’t.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/05/2009 to 7:57 am

    Fox – I agree that the line has to be moved to fit the severity of the crime. I believe very much in the spirit, not the letter of the law, and abhor mandatory sentences because they turn courts into machines, not halls of justice. I would be fine if people simply drew lines that they themselves could live by, but the problem is that so many people want others to toe the lines they themselves see. That’s where the problem lies.

  • bill r. spoke:
    6th/05/2009 to 8:04 am

    Well. So much has already been said, and I can’t address everything I might like to, but:
    I come down on this issue closer to Fox than to Rick or Marilyn, and yet I liked The Woodsman. I understand that pedophiles don’t choose to have the desires they have, and many of them must be tortured by them — didn’t Peter Lorre say, in M, “You have no idea what it’s like to be me”? — but what they do choose is whether or not they act on those desires. THAT is a choice, and a subhuman choice. They know it’s wrong, they know the damage they’re inflicting, they know everything we do, but they go through with it anyway. That’s when we enter the realm of the monstrous.
    But, again, I liked The Woodsman, because I have no problem with acknowledging the human side of people like this. Fox makes a very good point when he says the film cops out by not getting into Walter’s crimes, and that’s a pretty typical kind of cop-out when an artist wants to explore the humanity of the worst kinds of criminals. But Bacon is terrific, and really kind of saves the movie. I believed Bacon, I believed men just like him, who felt and thought just like him, must exist, and I did pity him. I don’t want him out on the streets, but I can find it in myself to pity him.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/05/2009 to 8:39 am

    Bill – I think what The Woodsman does is show that Walter, even after being incarcerated, didn’t really comprehend the damage he was doing. That’s a point I tried to bring up in my review. He says, “It’s not what you think; I never hurt them.” That says a lot about how he’s still in denial about the monstrosity of his actions. The film was smart in making him finally confront the fact that he was seriously hurting these girls. Robin’s character was crucial (and wonderfully portrayed by Hannah Pilkes) to help Walter begin to understand how heinous a crime he actually had and was still capable of committing. This film, for me, is a beginning at understanding for pedophiles and the people who deny them humanity. That’s its power, in my opinion, for good.

  • bill r. spoke:
    6th/05/2009 to 8:44 am

    Yeah, but people justify rape and murder, too. And child molestation is, of course, rape. Being in denial over your crime doesn’t cut too much ice with me, unless the person has some sort of genuine cognitive. Some pedophiles may rationalize what they’re doing (some may not), but that doesn’t mean they didn’t actually understand it. I’m sure Scott Peterson did a lot of rationalizing, too, but no one is rushing to understand him.

  • bill r. spoke:
    6th/05/2009 to 8:45 am

    “cognitive disorder”…

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/05/2009 to 8:51 am

    Yes, I understand what you’re saying. I think the difference is that most pedophiles don’t hate children, they love them. This is the true mental sickness of the crime, which is a lot different to me than a sociopath who kills. Motivation is different, and that mitigates my opinion of the criminal. Again, should these people be locked away forever? I don’t have an answer to that. Maybe they should be. Maybe they can’t be cured or controlled. Still, the idea of the boogie man who stalks children kind of ignores the widespread abuse within families. Do we break up families to protect the children in them? This is a very tough one for me to try to reconcile.

  • Greg F. spoke:
    6th/05/2009 to 1:30 pm

    I wish I hadn’t missed all of this. Thanks work, you hateful thing you! I originally read the review when you posted it but didn’t comment since I hadn’t seen it. Now I see this great ethical debate going on and … oh well. It was a great read and it reminds me once again why TOERIFC is such a great success.
    Again, should these people be locked away forever? I don’t have an answer to that. Maybe they should be. Maybe they can’t be cured or controlled. Still, the idea of the boogie man who stalks children kind of ignores the widespread abuse within families. Do we break up families to protect the children in them?
    Well if they can’t control themselves then yes, I’d say they should be locked away to protect the children they would otherwise harm. The point of prison has always been two-fold: Punishment and Protection for the Citizenry. If they can control it through drugs or therapy then no, they shouldn’t be locked away forever. Only in prison, a psychiatric ward, can we make that determination so like most things, it should work on a case by case basis.
    I would also favor removing a child from an abusive family. If the child is being abused sexually then that outweighs whatever damage might come from breaking up the family in my opinion.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/05/2009 to 1:55 pm

    You certainly make it sound like a no-brainer, Greg. I actually do think removing the child from the abusive situation is right. I worry about foster care, of course, but it’s a better risk.
    As for the movies, how many can we think of that wink at incest, particularly mothers and sons? Too many. There does seem to me to be a double-standard in these cases.

  • bill r. spoke:
    6th/05/2009 to 3:09 pm

    As for the movies, how many can we think of that wink at incest, particularly mothers and sons? Too many
    Murmur of the Heart is the only one I can think of, but boy do I hate that movie because of it. I like several other Malle movies, but that one kind of sickens me.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/05/2009 to 3:38 pm

    All About My Mother, Four Friends (which does have this father/daughter relationship end tragically), The House of Yes (brother/sister), Chinatown, a hideous film I saw at a festival Dead Girl’s Feast (father/son). None of these is a pure condemnation, several make it just fine.

  • bill r. spoke:
    6th/05/2009 to 6:15 pm

    You don’t think Chinatown is a pure condemnation?? The fact that Evelyn tries to justify it — and not very convincingly — doesn’t mean Gittes, or us, is meant to agree. That’s just her character, with no bearing on the overall moral point of view.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/05/2009 to 6:36 pm

    Evelyn is the only one who is punished. Now is the film overall bleak about life. Yes, indeed. But what it says to me is that a guy like Noah will keep molesting girls, and nothing will change. That’s been my point – that we pull out the big guns on a guy like Walter and let the Noahs of this world keep on keepin’ on.

  • bill r. spoke:
    6th/05/2009 to 7:01 pm

    Evelyn is mistakenly punished. That’s not a function of the film condemning her and not condemning Noah. It’s a function of the film being a tragedy.
    That’s been my point – that we pull out the big guns on a guy like Walter and let the Noahs of this world keep on keepin’ on
    What, finally, is the difference between them? Both rape children. If you want to say incest is worse, okay, I’ll agree with that, but Walter’s victims may have a bit of a harder time making the distinction. So why does Noah outrage you so much more? Is it the incest, or something else?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    6th/05/2009 to 8:36 pm

    Evelyn’s tragedy made it necessary for her to die. Her mere existence is an affront to the way things work. That really is the “mise en scene” of the film.
    As I said at the very beginning of this comment thread, I’m not apologizing for Walter or trying to excuse him. He and Noah are both rapists, but I do feel the incest is worse. As I said before, it’s the ultimate betrayal and not one a victim can ever really escape, which the victim of a stranger might be able to.

  • bill r. spoke:
    7th/05/2009 to 7:06 am

    Evelyn’s tragedy made it necessary for her to die. Her mere existence is an affront to the way things work. That really is the “mise en scene” of the film
    How does the film approve of any of this, though, or not fully condemn it?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    7th/05/2009 to 8:28 am

    Bill, you’re right. I don’t really think the film approves of this. What it does, like all good noir films, is hold a mirror up to the seamy side of life and says, “This is your American dream!”

  • Daniel spoke:
    15th/05/2009 to 1:37 pm

    Interesting discussion. I also haven’t seen this movie since the theater, but fall somewhere around Marilyn and Rick on it.
    One point of clarification for Fox – I’m pretty sure I understand your thoughts about pedophiles as being sub-human, but I can’t reconcile that with your first statement that “as with any sexual desire, I believe that pedophilia is something ingrained and not a choice”. Were this true, wouldn’t that make these people even more human?

  • Daniel spoke:
    15th/05/2009 to 2:42 pm

    Interesting article that I just ran across after reading all of this: http://www.kpho.com/news/19468381/detail.html

  • Marilyn spoke:
    15th/05/2009 to 3:11 pm

    That’s a strange story, Daniel, but it didn’t mention exactly how long he had been at the school, whether he molested any boys while there, and why he was in prison. Was it for parole violation that would reinstate his original sentence? Lots of holes in this report, though the speculation that he stopped his emotional growth at 13 is a provocative and pertinent one to this film.

  • The Inversed spoke:
    30th/06/2009 to 11:56 pm

    As a pedophile myself, though not an offendor like Walter, I deeply appreciate this film. It’s just so real. I am voluntarily in therapy to help me with my desires, and I feel that more films like this, not glorifying or demonizing pedophiles but simply treating them like human beings, need to be done for the human dignity of pedophiles and for the safety of children.

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