Director/Coscreenwriter: Nicole Kassell
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.