What kind of character do you suppose would top the American moviegoing public’s list of hardest to sympathize with? Not far down from “Islamic terrorist,” I suspect, would be the protagonist of Nicole Kassell’s gritty and disturbing debut film, The Woodsman-a character so universally loathed that portraying him constitutes an act of cinematic courage for director and actor alike.
Shot in Philadelphia, The Woodsman surveys a hard-bitten urban world of blue-collar work, grimy apartments, rowdy bars, and reckless romances in which having some major blemishes on one’s past generally adds to the allure. Kevin Bacon plays Walter, the new hire at the lumberyard, a grim-faced loner doing his work and looking to talk to nobody. “So what did he do, the new guy?” gossips a nosy secretary in the office. “Drugs? Armed robbery? Manslaughter?” A sassy and rebellious coworker, Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick), is drawn to Walter’s air of hard-knocks mystery, and undertakes to seduce him. “Are you going to tell me your dark secret?” she teases. “I’m not easily shocked.” Finally, with their romance well underway, Walter does tell her. “I molested little girls,” he confesses. In fact, he has just finished serving twelve years in prison for it.
Anxiety over child molestation is rampant in today’s America, a society roiled by a pedophile priest scandal and queasy about its own habit of exploiting adolescent sexuality in advertising and pop culture. Legislative initiatives for preventive detention challenge the right of child molesters to reenter society, even after serving their time. Sex-offender registries and Amber Alerts proliferate; and in at least one current civil case, an offender is being sued for bringing neighborhood property values down. Add to that a large body of psychiatric literature detailing the stubborn intractability of pedophilia, and it all adds up to a class of persons popularly considered beyond redemption. This conventional judgment forms the jumping-off point for The Woodsman. Kassell takes a type believed, in effect, to be less than human-an animal, a monster-and sets out to explore his humanity.
It is a well-shielded humanity. Walter goes through his days behind a mask of stolid wariness, smiling rarely, and then only nervously. The world’s default mode in dealing with him is one of suspicion and hostility. Landlords reject his applications; his sister adamantly refuses to let him anywhere near his young niece; and co-workers, discovering his past, threaten violence. A police detective (Mos Def) harasses him, barging into his apartment and subjecting him to a degrading and lascivious tirade. “You can’t talk to me like that,” Walter complains at last. “Like what,” the detective shoots back, “a piece of shit? But that’s what you are to me, a piece of shit...I don’t know why they keep letting freaks like you back out on the street. It just means we gotta catch you all over again.”
Does Walter deserve this? Partly, of course, we believe he does. The Woodsman balances its drama between our instinct to shun and demonize Walter, and Kassell’s insistence on granting him precisely the measure of dignity that we would withhold. She shows us what a person in his situation has to live with. In one scene at work, Walter’s supervisor approaches with a stern look, and we watch Walter readying himself to be fired-until the boss walks on by. It doesn’t have anything to do with him after all. But when you’re one of the damned, you expect people to turn on you in an instant, and not only get away with it, but feel justified doing so.
Such small revelations invite our sympathy, but Kassell shrewdly keeps us uncertain. Because Walter is not exactly reformed. Somewhat less than believably, his apartment looks out over a primary school playground, with only a gauzy curtain separating him from the tantalizing forms of little girls at play. Walter has done his time-twelve years’ worth-and wants desperately to put his crimes behind him. And yet he still feels the same pull. Standing at his window, he peers through blinds at the world outside, its temptation and its threat. “When will I be normal?” he asks his court-ordered therapist in dismay. That depends, the therapist answers, on what he means by “normal.”
This is a small, understated movie, but quite artfully constructed. Kassell and her photographer, Xavier Pérez Grobet, create a drably ominous visual poetry of recurring slow-motion images-a big red playground ball rolling to a stop at Walter’s feet; a little girl disappearing into a bedroom-that evoke his forbidden and anguished desire. In a bar, flirting with Vickie, Walter plays with a napkin, making it into goofy puppet figures. Realizing the implications of what he is doing, he stops abruptly, and a haunted, thousand-yard stare crosses his face. At his apartment, in a prelude to lovemaking, Vickie sits on his lap, and Walter becomes aroused-then breaks down crying. This is what he did with the girls, we learn later-his M.O. as a pedophile, inviting them to sit on his lap.
The Woodsman assembles these deft, impact-full moments one after another, gathering a weight of psychological and moral complexity. Attempting to tell Vickie about his past crimes, Walter struggles with their meaning. “It’s not what you think,” he says. “I never hurt them-ever.” While we understand his need to claim some humanity in the face of those who label him a monster, it’s unsettling to hear him insist that tenderness, not violence, lay at the heart of his transgressions-and also, perhaps, preparing an inner justification for transgressing again. He’s wavering, and Kassell doesn’t let him, or us, off the hook. Riding the bus home every day from work, Walter is drawn to a little girl he sees on her way back from school; one day he gets off at her stop, follows her through a woodsy park and engages her in conversation. Talking to her, Walter smiles. He isn’t just sexually aroused, but happy; he’s at home and comfortable, intruding into her world of childhood. Here is the self, we see, that he has been desperately suppressing. All pleasures lead Walter back to his illicit pleasure; his only way of coping is to shut himself down. Kassell’s accomplishment is to bring a character with little psychological sophistication to the dreadful realization that simply paying his debt to society does not free him; that he is still in prison-the prison of his past, his reputation, and most of all, his desires.
As Walter, Bacon delivers one of the richest, most perfectly pitched acting jobs you’ll ever see-a profound study in self-loathing, courage, weakness, and despair. In the excruciating moment when we finally see him propositioning the girl, the look on his face reveals a man absolutely broken by his temptation. That this masterpiece of the acting art failed to garner an Academy Award nomination seemingly replicates the shunning that is one of the film’s subjects. Who wants such a nasty subject around at Oscar time, ruining the fun?
This in turn suggests the larger moral scope of Kassell’s accomplishment. Walter’s condition, as he comes bleakly to understand, is a given; morality consists in what he does with it. But what about the morality of those who heap indignity upon him? The Woodsman shows that while every day poses an intense struggle for Walter, those who pile on against him are doing the easy thing, indulging in the selfish gratification of righteousness, the cheap thrill of moral bullying. In this sense, Kassell quietly makes the provocative argument that a pedophile may be more moral than his persecutors. And even, perhaps-given Walter’s toils of temptation and penitence-more spiritual.
The Woodsman commits a couple of first-time errors, but they are minor flaws in an uncommonly assured and scrupulous film. And while Kassell doesn’t seem to be operating from a consciously Christian perspective, she arrives at a Christian place, keeping company with a person perceived to be irredeemable, and honoring both his fallenness and his capacity for redemption. The film’s quietly lovely ending, by a stream in the woods, evokes the power of faith and offers a patient, muted hope for forgiveness. “Why do you stay?” Walter asks Vickie. “Because,” she says, “I see something in you. Something good. You don’t see it yet, but I do.”