Afew aspects of The Woodsman are nearly overwhelming upon first viewing, which is a trick that American films hardly ever pull off any more. Specifically, it’s impossible to make a snap judgment on how to feel about Walter, the protagonist played exceptionally well by Kevin Bacon in this dour, sedate film by first-time feature director Nicole Kassell. This confusion isn’t the norm for movie viewers, who typically know exactly how to feel about a character within a few scenes of introduction. Good movies exploit that snap judgment, bending and twisting it with plot exposition, but only truly clever movies can keep us honestly ambivalent about a character for their entire length. Though The Woodsman has a few faults, that confusion alone is worth investigating.
Kassell keeps us riveted by forcing us to think hard about things we might live our whole lives and never contemplate. Walter, you see, is a convicted child molester just getting out of prison following 12 years of incarceration. We discover early on that Walter hates himself just as much as the world hates him; “When will I be normal?” he croaks to his court-appointed psychiatrist. He wants to change, but the combination of biology and society is ponderous. There’s no answer to Walter’s question, but the film forces us to consider whether it’s possible. That’s something you’ve probably never honestly thought about before.
Walter finds a landlord who will rent him a place—and it’s across the street from an elementary school. He finds a job in the shipping department of a lumberyard, where his boss (David Alan Grier) is sympathetic and a secretary (Eve, who’s outstanding) is determined to find out what he’s hiding. Walter eventually hooks up with Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick), a forklift operator with a heart of gold and an understanding of flawed men.
And Walter’s sexual compulsions loom in the background, all the more ominous for their silence. A police sergeant (Mos Def) is watching his every move, certain Walter won’t be among the small percentage of pedophiles who change, while Walter’s brother-in-law (Benjamin Bratt) tries to be supportive. Everyone waits for Walter’s next move. Just like the audience, the characters either don’t know what to think, or they’re dying to be proved right or wrong.
It’s an elaborate emotional balancing act, and Kassell keeps all the balls in the air for a good deal longer than you might expect. She gets most of her help from Bacon, who captures Walter with a compelling mix of fear, resourcefulness and hollow-eyed self-loathing. She also has a strong feel for the quiet claustrophobia of lonely apartment living, and the lumberyard scenes echo The Machinist in their sterile workplace numbness. There’s another monster in the mix: Walter spots a predator (Kevin Rice) stalking the school. The film steadily builds to Walter’s confrontation with an 11-year-old girl in a scene that’s best watched between the fingers of the hand over your eyes.
Though The Woodsman is much better than the average first-time feature in most respects, it also falls prey to a few of the most obvious traps. Much of the dialogue (adapted from a stage play) is stilted and artificially pointed; the characters are at their most haunting when they don’t talk. The final third is tidy and slick, drowning the limitless possibilities of the setup in too much literalism. And though Walter and Vickie have an eerie relationship that provides an intriguing counterpoint to Walter’s other desires, Sedgwick’s character is only slightly more plausible than any of the proto-feminist stick figures she has portrayed in Sundances past.
But Kassell provides ample support to Bacon’s character and performance, and it’s difficult to do much more accomplished, intriguing work than this in a debut film. The Woodsman is unsettling and smart, promising great futures for nearly everyone involved—even if the movie itself finally devolves into something less than greatness.
THE WOODSMAN *** Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Mos Def Rated R