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THE WOODSMAN

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgewick, Eve, Mos Def, David Alan Grier, Michael Shannon, Benjamin Bratt
Director:  Nicole Kassell
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85
Studio:  New Market Films
Features:  See Review
Length:  87 Minutes
Release Date:  April 12, 2005

"When will I be normal?"

Film ***

The Woodsman is a most unconventional film in more ways than one, beginning with its taboo subject matter of making a pedophile the lead character.  It's a movie that constantly suggests it's tipping its hand, by making you think you know how events will unfold, but it never follows the easiest or most logical path.

As a movie lover, I appreciate the many risks the filmmakers took with their style and content.  As a human being, I couldn't help but feel revulsion for what it had to show me.  But make no mistake, that's a big part of the point.  Even less so than Monster, this is a picture that doesn't invite its audience to have sympathy for someone who commits unspeakable acts.

The fact that we don't turn away when we ordinarily might is a testament to the courageous performance of Kevin Bacon in the lead.  I've long considered him one of our more under-appreciated actors, and he proves it here by completely delving into the kind of stigmatized role where, in a quietly tortured bit of acting, dares to become the kind of guy that most filmgoers would instinctively revile, more so than some of the flamboyantly bad and shallow villains that the cinema tends to throw at us.

The picture opens with Walter (Bacon) emerging from prison after twelve years.  We don't know right away what he did, but of course, the movie ads have let us know...he molested young girls.  He's beginning the near-impossible course of trying to lead a normal life.  He gets a job, rents an apartment (uncomfortably close to an elementary school), tries to make contact with his family though only his brother-in-law (Bratt) will see him, and has therapy sessions where he expresses his desire to be normal.

This is essentially a thorough and unflinching character study.  The movie has plot points, but doesn't attempt to connect through them in search of an ending the way we've been trained to expect.  He takes up with a woman (Bacon's real-life spouse Sedgewick), and we wonder if Walter's past will eventually destroy his chance at a life with her.  He begins to notice a guy watching the kids at school, and recognizes from his own experience the workings of a pedophile mind, and we think maybe Walter will be the key to help the cops bust him.  Then when a detective (Def) starts nosing around Walter's life and informing him that kids are being assaulted nearby, we figure Walter will end up taking the rap because of his past, whether he's guilty or not.

Perhaps the biggest loop the picture throws us is that it's not even the standard tale of redemption.  We figure the only reason to give us this kind of character is to show how love and understanding can humanize a monster, but as I mentioned, the film is unflinching.  One of the starkest scenes in recent memory involves a dialogue between Walter and a young girl bird watcher alone on a bench in the park.  I don't want to delve into the details, but suffice to say, the movie hadn't made a false step up to that point, and it didn't start taking them then.

This movie took a lot of chutzpah on the part of everyone involved.  They must have known they were crafting a picture that would be off-putting to a lot of people and would probably not make a lot of money nor be showered with accolades from awards bodies that would find it easier to ignore rather than acknowledge the uncomfortable subject matter.  Kevin Bacon could have easily earned an Oscar nod for his work here, but it was obviously much safer for the Academy not to call attention to the movie.

Even I find recommending The Woodsman with trepidation, admiring the film as an original, well-acted drama but not really liking the experience of the world it brought me into for 90 minutes.  You may have to do some soul searching before you pick this one up.  All I can say in the end is, don't be put off by the idea that a movie tries to make you feel sorry for a child molester.  It doesn't.  There is no glossing over the ugliness of the crime; merely an exploration of a character who is what he is and how he goes about dealing with it from day to day.

Video **1/2

The Woodsman was a fairly low budget film, and as such, has the look of one.  Some noticeable grain and occasional lack of definition betray that not all first-rate equipment was used.  I think the dingier look is kind of serviceable, though, given the film's subject matter.  Perfectly watchable, to be sure, but far from a knockout.

Audio ***

With Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks to choose from, there are no complaints in the audio department.  Despite being a dialogue-oriented film, what really brings the sound to life is Nathan Larson's intriguing, percussive music which brings both front and rear stages to life in an eerie, ambient way that also lends some dynamic range to the proceedings.

Features **1/2

The extras include an informative commentary track from director Nicole Kassell, three deleted or extended scenes, the trailer, some bonus previews, and a making-of featurette that focuses on producer Lee Daniels.  Not necessarily a bad package, but I would have liked to have heard more from Kevin Bacon or some of the other stars.

Summary:

The Woodsman is quite unlike any movie in recent memory, for better or worse.  It's a film that took a lot of guts to make, especially on the part of Kevin Bacon in the lead role, and as such, the picture deserves a good deal of credit and merit, even if the subject matter doesn't.

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