The subject of pedophilia is a controversial one, but what about a movie whose lead character is such a criminal? Few movies are able to show compassion for monsters without passing judgment, but "The Woodsman" is such a film, and thanks to one of the finest performances ever by Kevin Bacon, it is one of the best character studies to come along in a long time.
"The Woodsman" follows the development of Walter, a convicted sex offender, who has been released from prison and is looking to start a new life by working in a lumber yard. While he wants to be good, temptation is always right around the corner as he lives across the street from a playground and rides the bus home every day with a little girl. Though he has some support from a woman named Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick) and his brother (Benjamin Bratt), he is poked and prodded by a suspicious police sergeant (Mos Def) about some recent crimes.
Similar to such films as "Monster," "The Woodsman" relies on its performances to captivate the audience. On paper alone it must have been difficult to find financers for the film, but with the acting talent involved, "The Woodsman" is "easy to watch" even though the subject matter is hard to handle. Bacon, who played a child rapist in 1996's "Sleepers," is absolutely incredible in the lead. He makes you feel for the character without forgiving him; he walks the fine line between being a protagonist you can root for and a monster you want to see locked away. On the one hand, it is clear he wants to be good, but children are everywhere and we get to see the contemplation in his eyes. It's disturbing to the bone, but Bacon handles the material perfectly, allowing us to feel sorry for the way that he thinks.
Some have argued about whether this film tries to make the audience feel sorry for him. Some say that it's neutral, but basically that's just bullshit. Director Nicole Kassell and screenwriter Steven Fechter never attempt to make a hero out of him, but the sole fact that they've made a movie about a pedophile suggests that they see more to the man than just his evil side. Are they wrong in doing so? No. Pedophiles are still people, and while their darker side is much darker than most, most of them do have good sides as well. "The Woodsman" is simply trying to show that even the most evil of men can try to be good.
As mentioned earlier, the film relies heavily on its actors to carry the movie. "The Woodsman" is well-written and well-acted, not just due to Bacon but also to his off-screen Sedgwick, who also delivers a career-defining performance. Still, as with many character studies, the movie itself is only decent. It's well directed (and looks a hell of a lot better than the direct-to-video appearance of "Monster," in which Charlize Theron was the only real highlight), but the story doesn't lend itself to Oscar-caliber requirements. There's nothing wrong with that, but don't expect an extraordinary movie that will leave you breathless afterwards.
"The Woodsman" is not for everyone, but its dark subject matter is handled properly by everyone involved. Bacon turns in the performance of a lifetime and it's a real shame he wasn't recognized more during award season.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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