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EIFF 2017: The Woodsman (2004) presented by Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick
Kevin Bacon plays Walter, a man released from a spell in prison for molesting little girls. He is allocated to a job in a factory working for Bob (David Alan Grier), where he attempts to keep his head down amid the suspicions of a number of employees, including Mary-Kay (Eve). On the other side of the coin, he soon takes notice of Vicki (played by Bacon’s real-life wife Kyra Sedgwick) when she puts up a plucky defence in the face of harassment by her male co-workers. The pair quickly strike up a relationship, but one fraught with difficulties due to Walter’s sense of guilt at his past actions and difficulties at overcoming his own sickness.
His problems attempting to reform his life are exacerbated when the only flat he can rent is across from a playground, and when someone at work finds out about his crimes and starts to put shaming notices inside his locker. He is also repeatedly bugged by Sgt. Lucas (Mos Def) who is investigating a series of child sexual assaults in the area. Walter, who naturally knows how paedophiles think and operate, begins to suspect a man he sees loitering around the playground - whom he dubs Candy (Kevin Rice) - and even his own brother-in-law Carlos (Benjamin Bratt), could themselves be suffering from the same sickness.
Paedophilia has always been one of those taboo subjects that’s incredibly hard for filmmakers to navigate dramatically, without going down the obvious route of demonisation. It’s beyond question that the act of child sexual abuse is one that is utterly heinous and sick, and one that has caused irrevocable psychological (and sometimes physical) damage to its many victims. Hence, any film actually taking the point of view of a paedophile is guaranteed to stir controversy, and more than likely be avoided by audiences in droves. Such was the case with The Woodsman; despite largely positive critical notices and the high-profile casting of Kevin Bacon it only received a limited theatrical release and made less than $4.7 million worldwide. I, for one, wasn’t tempted to watch it during its original run. Having taken the opportunity to see it now at EIFF 2017, I can confirm that it’s a remarkable film which handles its subject matter in an unusual, yet sensitive, manner.
Both the film and Bacon’s character Walter know, full well, that paedophilia is absolutely inexcusable. That is never called into question. However, Walter isn’t a monster by any stretch of the imagination: he’s a fairly unremarkable, if unusually handsome and understandably guarded guy, whose trying to control his urges (with the help of a seemingly useless psychiatrist played by Michael Shannon) and get on with this opportunity for a new life outside of incarceration. Bacon turns in one of his finest performances mixing head-hung shame, sullen guardedness, fraught anxiety at his condition and, on one or two scenes, pure unbridled anger at his own life as a social pariah. It’s an incredibly brave feat for any actor to sign up to play such a reviled form of criminal (it was his second time doing so, after 1996’s Sleepers), let alone to portray them in such a multilayered, humanistic manner.
The nuanced performances extend to the other actors in the cast. I was particularly impressed with rapper Mos Def’s work as the police officer who makes some uncomfortable house calls at Walter’s flat. While it initially seems like he is being setup as a straightforward antagonist, we later see emotional depths in his performance that render him more sympathetic as the film goes on. Kyra Sedgwick, as Bacon’s onscreen lover, has a certain rough-hewn warmth and (as you might expect), clicks believably with her real-life husband during their intimate moments on-screen together. Benjamin Bratt is also great as Walter’s brother-in-law, the only person from his old life who still speaks to him.
As well as the performances, Nicole Kassell’s direction also impresses. Although The Woodsman is based on a play by Steven Fechter, it never feels less than cinematic. While she imbues the film with a sombre, restrained atmosphere throughout, the film’s genre flits seamlessly back and forth through observational slice-of-life, romance and thriller. The themes of uncontrolled watching and obsession give rise to a style that often homages Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma in its setpieces (in particular we can feel the influences of Rear Window, Body Double and Raising Cain here), yet the referencing never feels self-conscious and often taps into a genuine I-can’t-look sense of discomfort in the viewer. There are also some inventive moments such as one chronicling Candy’s entrapment of a young boy, complete with darting camerawork and a voiceover narration in the style of a sports commentary. This latter moment could have felt self-indulgent, but proves disturbingly effective in its way of putting the viewer into the psyche of the paedophile’s diseased modus operandi.
It’s understandable why many viewers would want to shun The Woodsman due to its approach towards sensitive subject matter. However, in doing so you are missing an outstanding film, and one which throws considerably more light on a subject that, by staying buried under the “taboo” blanket, will garner more tragic victims than meaningful resolutions.
The EIFF 2017 Q & A featuring Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick was well worth staying behind for. The pair covered numerous subjects, ranging from the film’s unusual approach to its subject matter, to Bacon’s recent participation in the EE adverts (one which, in its own way, has been almost as controversial).
Runtime: 87 mins
Dir: Nicole Kassell
Script: Nicole Kassell, Steven Fechter, from a play by Steven Fechter
Starring: Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Eve, Mos Def, David Alan Grier, Benjamin Bratt, Michael Shannon, Kevin Rice