Nicole Kassell’s ‘The Woodsman’ (2004)

03May05

I must recognize both director Nicole Kassell and screenwriter Steven Fechter for the courage involved in attempting to portray a sympathetic pedophile. And the result of their attempts is an unsettling, disturbing and yet poignant and very human film.

Assets:

  1. Kevin Bacon’s performance. While all of the performances in this film are solid, Kevin Bacon is outstanding as Walter. He was a good choice to play this role because, come on, he’s Kevin Bacon. He’s sexy in an I-can’t-quite-put-my-finger-on-why kind of a way; he has a boyish, likable smile and those big blue eyes that can look so, so sad. But he’s also an incredible actor who prefers understated to overly dramatic. In every moment of this film, Bacon conveys that demons lurk beneath Walter’s surface without any gnashing of teeth or twirling of a dark moustache. He easily switches from conflicted and tormented to creepy and revolting as Walter decides to follow a girl in a mall or talk to Robin.
  2. The screenplay. The script was adapted from a play, but it doesn’t feel like a play. Even good play-to-screen adaptations like Closer tend to betray the format of their source material. But Fechter’s adaptation of his play manages to avoid the telling signs, such as excess dialogue, long scenes in one space, and limited locations. The screenplay also succeeds because it trusts the actors to convey emotions and the audience to draw conclusions. Also, the image of the title is used effectively and not too obviously. Walter is a “woods man” in that he works with wood for a living, but also his dream of a molestation and his near-molestation of Robin both occur in woodsy areas. The more obvious woodsman image that Fechter includes—the woodsman in “Little Red Riding Hood” who cuts open the wolf’s stomach and frees an unharmed Little Red Riding Hood—also applies as Walter stuggles to be a woodsman and not a wolf with Vickie, Cherub, and Robin.
  3. Sound. Kassell uses sound very effectively and very subtly in this film. She unobtrusively takes away sound as Walter gives into his desires and then suddenly brings back the sound as he is jarred into reality.

Offenses:

  1. All the incidences of molestation. The contrivance fairy seemed to wave her wand quite a bit in this film. Walter happens to pursue a relationship with a woman who was molested by her brothers as a girl and does not hate them. He happens to live across the street from an elementary school where another pedophile is trolling. He happens to try to seduce a girl whose father is molesting her. This film makes it seem like every male likes molesting little girls. Granted, there is a high percentage of women who are molested at some point in their lives, but I don’t think that suggestion was on the film’s agenda.
  2. Inequitable nudity. I don’t mind nudity in films, but I am a proponent of equal opportunity nudity. Kyra Sedgwick’s breasts made an appearance, but there was no reciprocal shot of Kevin Bacon. And why not? The guy loves being naked. I bet he would have allowed a butt shot. Well, I guess I can try to rationalize the instance of inquitable nudity in this film because the sex scenes actually serve a purpose. In the first scene, Vickie has opened up more than Walter has, thus the breasts and less of Walter’s body. But in the second scene, I believe that he has revealed his secret by that point, so seeing more of Walter’s body would not be inappropriate. In the third scene both are covered because Walter is distancing himself from Vickie and is retreating further into his old practices with girls. So, yeah, still irked about the nudity.

Kassell does not ask the audience to like or even to sympathize with Walter, merely to try to understand him. And even though I was still repulsed by Walter on some level at the end of the film, I wanted him to succeed. I rallied for Walter to resist temptation.

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