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The Woodsman (2004)

Directed by:

Nicole Kassell

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 85 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: TBC

Probably the most famous sex scene in cinema history is the one between Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie in Nicolas Roeg's 'Don't Look Now' (1973). Not only did it look real, but its intimate intensity was enhanced by the manner in which Roeg chopped it up with scenes of post-coital dressing, and by the knowledge that Sutherland's character is desperately trying to recover a sense of normality after his young daughters were killed in a tragic accident. In her feature debut 'The Woodsman', director Nicole Kassell references Roeg's film by cross-cutting the first sex scene between Walter (Kevin Bacon) and Vickie (Bacon's real-life wife Kyra Sedgwick) with images of her removing her clothes beforehand, and him washing his face afterwards – and it is no casual allusion, for Walter too is desperate to become normal following tragedies involving young girls. Only in this case, the tragedies are of Walter's own making, as he has just completed a twelve-year prison sentence for paedophilia.

Walter works quietly at a lumberyard and tries to move on from his past, but neither his creepily disingenuous brother-in-law Carlos (Benjamin Bratt) nor the local police sergeant Lucas (Mos Def) believes that he can change, and Walter himself is all too aware how much time he spends watching the school playground opposite his apartment or shadowing a young girl (Hannah Pilkes) whom he spots on his bus route – and he still has only a shaky notion that what he did was wrong or harmful. Only his therapist, his boss, and in particular his tough workmate Vickie invest any trust in him, and help him to pick up the pieces as he struggles to overcome his own darkest drives.

Adapted by Kassell from Steven Fechter's play of the same name, 'The Woodsman' is at heart a film about the throes of recovery, but its studious avoidance of 12-step therapy-speak, and its focus on a compulsive disorder that is morally inexcusable and universally repugnant, ensure that it has a far greater dramatic impact than similar films dealing with, say, alcoholism or drug addiction. Previously Kevin Bacon has played a kidnapper (Trapped), a paedophile (‘Sleepers’) and a rapist (‘Hollow Man’), but also a compromised policeman investigating statutory rape charges (‘Wild Things’), a man falsely suspected of rape and murder (In the Cut), and a homicide detective touched by horrific abuse in his childhood (Mystic River) – and these past rôles, as well as the extraordinary intensity of Bacon’s present performance, all play their part in shading the character of Walter so that he becomes suspended perfectly between the viewer’s sympathies and suspicions.

Really ‘The Woodsman’ is Bacon’s film, but he is more than ably assisted by his co-stars, most notably by Sedgwick who epitomises resilience, by Bratt playing a character every bit as ambiguous as Walter himself, by Mos Def who elevates a stock cop rôle to new levels of melancholic disillusionment, and by Pilkes, whose nuanced turn in the film’s most difficult scenes makes her a real talent to watch. Add to this the downbeat lyricism of Kassell’s direction, and ‘The Woodsman’ becomes a gripping human drama reminiscent of the best films of the 1970s.

It's Got: Kevin Bacon (what more do you need?) - but there are also superb turns from Bacons real-life wife Kyra Sedgwick, Benjamin Bratt, Mos Def, and Hannah Pilkes.

It Needs: Viewers with enough tolerance to be able to engage emotionally with a convicted paedophile (although Bacons performance more than helps you get there).

Alternatives:

Happiness, L.I.E., Re-Inventing Eddie

Summary

Watch this gripping drama about a child molester's struggle against his own inclinations if you want to see the problem of paedophilia handled with more intelligence, sensitivity and balance than the tabloids can muster – if not, then watch it for Kevin Bacon's performance.

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