THE WOODSMAN is the bravest film of the year, perhaps of the decade. Emotionally challenging and ferociously unforgiving, it is an astonishing work of surprising delicacy played out with the rawest of emotion simmering just beneath the surface. In telling the story of Walter (Kevin Bacon), a convicted pedophile, it demands that we look beyond the crime to the person who committed it and not turn away.
The script, co-written by the film’s director, Nicole Kassell with Stephen Fechter, based on his play, never sympathizes with what he did. To the contrary, there is no mitigating of the heinous nature of the crime, which is as it should be. Walter himself is repulsed even when in the throes of his urges. Instead, there is a palpable and there is a humanizing empathy for the prison that those very urges represent for Walter. The helplessness in the face of them, and in the face of a society that is revolted by what he did, and unwilling to give him a second chance, so unforgivable was the act. Walter himself is not sure he deserves a second chance. Bacon is a revelation here, using a minimum of dialogue but with wary eyes full of self-loathing, and conveying with the slightest gesture or change in expression his fear that to feel any emotion strongly is to risk letting his demons loose. He’s not so much tightly wound and bottled up and hermetically sealed. It’s a self-control threatened when a co-worker at the lumber yard (Kyra Sedgwick) where hes found a job refuses to be put off by his brusque shyness. Sedgwick is a match for Bacon’s angst, tough, but not brittle, with a savvy sense of nurturing and a no-nonsense warmth. This is no fool, this is someone who might be able to save Walter from himself.
The camera, using light that is bright and harsh and as unapologetic as the story it is photographing, sees the world from Walter’s point of view, the way he sexualizes young girls that arent trying to be alluring, or the looks on peoples faces when Walter suspects they are watching him watching them. Then there’s the look on Walters face when he looks at himself in the mirror, vacant and despairing all at once. If his urges are a prison, so is the world as he perceives it. A feeling reinforced by the suspicious lurking by an adult outside the middle school across from Walter’s apartment, and the police detective (Mos Def), who barges in whenever he wants to let Walter know he’s being watched. Def’s easy affability somehow only emphasizing the visceral contempt he feels for Walter. Even the friendship offered by brother-in-law Carlos (Benjamin Bratt), the only member of Walter’s family to see him, has its boundaries firmly set beneath the camaraderie. When he returns a table that Walter hand-made as a wedding present, it’s a moment that is devastating. As is Walter’s assertion, unconvincing even to himself, that he is not a monster, that he never hurt the girls he molested. The disconnect setting the boundaries more firmly in place with Walter alone beyond help or the belief that he can be helped.
Ultimately, THE WOODSMAN demands that we love the sinner while hating the sin. Unlikely as it may seem, it accomplishes that while forcing us to re-consider the concepts of forgiveness, redemption, and even love. It’s not an easy film, but one that startles with its ability to see the world through eyes we never considered worth looking through.