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Woodsman or wolf
Nicole Kassellís debut is a lumbering effort

I have to agree with my colleague Gerald Peary (see "Film Culture") that the premise of The Woodsman ó convicted pedophile returns to society after 12 years in prison and moves in across the street from an elementary school ó undercuts the filmís credibility. Itís not the ex-conís poor judgment thatís the problem ó such perverse self-destructiveness is not uncommon, especially in drama ó so much as the parole boardís. What ever happened to ankle bracelets?

So the film starts off with a whiff of the phony (letís be kind and call it contrivance), and since itís schematic to boot, you might as well give The Woodsman the benefit of the doubt and call it a genre picture. (It certainly flops as psychological realism.) It does have a kind of film noir feel, evoking a working-class Philadelphia that seems to consist of chain-link fences and slumped people in parkas. Walter (Kevin Bacon), whoís been convicted of molesting little girls, is the anti-hero, a marginal figure lurking in the demi-monde between respectable society and the taboo underworld. Baconís hard-bitten recitation of his laconic lines, not to mention Walterís voiceover narrative as he reads from the journal he keeps at the insistence of his therapist, adds to the noirish effect.

A therapist, of course, is an anomaly in film noir or any genre film. Having an analyst accompany oneís dream only spoils the value of both. But The Woodsman tries therapy before it resorts to the simplistic acting out of genre. Walterís shrink asks him questions like, what do you think is normal? When Walter says that talking to him is a like riding a merry-go-round, the shrink points out what an excellent symbol that is. (And there are more excellent symbols to come.)

For a while, therapy seems the way to go. Walter holds down a job at a lumber yard (hence the title) and meets tough cookie Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick, Baconís real-life wife), and they have "normal" sex. But the road back to "normal" is not easy. Vickie prods Walter into telling her why he was in jail, and when he finally does so, heís so ashamed he kicks her out. Then people at work start to stick nasty things inside his locker. At home, he looks out the window and notes that the school across the street has its own resident pedophile, whom he nicknames "Candy." (Candy likes little boys, so you could argue heís even more depraved than Walter.) He observes Candyís behavior and broods over whether he should turn him in.

Then there are those symbols. The red ball, for example, that appears outside the playground gate, luring Walter inside. (Donít worry: itís all in his imagination.) The birds hovering by his bird feeder and those watched by the 12-year-old named Robin whom he follows into the park. Then, a real merry-go-round. Kassell, itís clear, is straining to overcome the staginess of the Steve Fechter play the film is based on; the result will not inspire any flattering comparisons with Fritz Lang.

Meanwhile, the therapist has gone back to work, following the trajectory of the red rubber ball of Walterís libido as it bounces from sex with Vickie to childhood memories of him sniffing his sisterís hair to him straying off into the park or the mall. Such effects help to distance the viewer from the enormity of Walterís crime. True, Lang didnít show Hans Beckertís crime in M, but there the directorís discretion fueled oneís worst imaginings rather than damping them. Here, whenever the subject comes up, sentences trail off into pregnant silences.

Sergeant Lucas (Mos Def), the local cop pestering Walter, speaks up for the victims at one point. Describing a heinous child murder, he drifts off about the Woodsman who rescued Little Red Riding Hood from the Wolfís belly. There is no Woodsman in real life, he notes. (But then, this is not life but a movie called The Woodsman.) This observation will hardly comfort the victims of such crimes.

To its credit, the film rises almost to the level of its subject in a wrenching scene near the end when Walter does comprehend the pain of those he victimizes and doesnít need any rubber balls or bogus therapists or generic conventions to achieve a kind of redemption. Those making the movie, however, think otherwise. If The Woodsmanís opening premise undermines its plausibility, its dénouement negates its moral authority.

Issue Date: January 7 - 13, 2005
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