No doubt you’ve already heard what “The Woodsman” is about. A possibly recovering pedophile, a convicted child molester out on parole after a 12-year jail term. And yes, he apparently was truly guilty. Narrow-minded cinemagoers might opt out right now for tamer fare, but for those of you with a more understanding nature, i.e., your gut instinct isn’t saying “not my kind of movie,” you’ll discover a tremendously powerful performance by Kevin Bacon (with lesser, yet still strong turns by Bacon’s real-life wife Kyra Sedgwick and hip hop artist turned actor Mos Def). Here’s a year-end “for your award consideration” release that does have a chance, at least in positioning Bacon for acting award kudos. Assuming those people who nominate/vote for the various award-presenting organizations actually have the fortitude to see the film. (Alas, it didn’t make the final cut of the Online Film Critics Society or the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association, the two movie review organizations that allow me membership.)
From the producer (Lee Daniels) of “Monster’s Ball,” to which “The Woodsman” unleashes the same mesmerizing power about the darker side of life, first time feature director Nicole Kassell shows a definite flair for handling her cast in this unsettling tale of regret, remorse, and redemption. Her adaptation, with Steven Fechter, upon whose play the film is based, creates a minimalist drama with almost noirish psychological underpinnings. Kassell provides just enough imaginative twists to keep you wondering if Bacon’s character will resolve his agonizing, personal issues at the film’s end.
Walter (Bacon) settles back into a remotely familiar, unnamed town, although a fleeting glimpse at a prison release form or rap sheet flashes Philadelphia (where it was filmed). He’s not a hardened criminal. Just the opposite; emotionally frail, borderline repressed, quiet and self-contained in a modest effort to prevent new “friends” from discovering his past life. His sister won’t have anything to do with him; his mentally twisted brother-in-law (Benjamin Bratt) seemingly pushes all the wrong buttons to ease him back into the family’s good graces. His apartment happens to face an elementary school across the street, and every time he looks out the window a groan emerges from the pit of your stomach. Walter is a solitary, damaged man, even when he finds work at a lumberyard a bus-ride across town. Only his boss (David Alan Grier), who has hired the ex-con as a family favor, knows the spoiled goods in the workplace. The new hire is a gifted woodworker—and there are some Christian comparisons to be made with a carpenter a few eons ago—at least about judging a person’s inner worth.
Walter, disgusted by his blue collar cohorts’ sexual harassment against one of the female employees (and the unwanted lascivious behavior of another member of the “gentler” sex toward him), gets drawn into a relationship with the woman, Vicki (Sedgwick). Walter, cursed with his memories, is as unsure of his footing in society as he is with whatever direction he and Vicki are headed. She’s got her own baggage issues. They will grow strong together.
Bacon’s performance is so riveting that you no longer see the 46-year-old actor (still cute two decades after gaining stardom in “Footloose,” yet who got plenty serious with 2003’s “Mystic River”), but a predator/victim devoid of exterior physicality, replaced by a vision of raw emotional turmoil. It’s borderline hypnotic. This is particularly evident in a scene where Walter has followed a young girl (Hannah Pilkes) into a peacefully serene, yet deserted park, using the pretext of bird-watching to gain her attention. On a bench, their conversation takes an uneasy turn, and we’re left to squirm in our seats as we wonder which symbolic door Walter is trying to walk or crawl through—a mortal reversion or a moral reckoning.
Kassell portrays Walter’s past transgressions as clipped memories, generally associated with an omnipresent red ball. With each bounce, you’ll question if he’ll revert to his former failings, further pushed along by apprehensive local cop Detective Lucas (Def). Or blossom (there is a plant motif) into a sense of normalcy, an urgency he constantly asks his psychiatrist “When will I be normal?” When the doctor suggests Walter keep a journal, he references a solitary male adult he calls Candy who is tempting some of the students at the school. The audience is left to wonder if this is a real figure or a figment of Walter’s imagination, a reflection on his own personality.
“The Woodsman” offers up the belief that life should be filled with second chances. It is up to people like Walter to decide how high he’ll climb or how low he’ll fall to reach how own normalcy.