Kevin Bacon’s entire career has been leading up to “The Woodsman,” where he finally gets to play a child molester.
His last two major roles were in “Mystic River” and “Trapped,” both films about people who harm children. Between them, he appeared as a stalker in “In the Cut.” Before that, there was the evil, voyeuristic invisible guy in “Hollow Man” (2000), plus the general ickiness of “Wild Things” (1998).
Bacon has a snaky, lubricated quality to him, with a face that approaches handsomeness but backs off at the last minute to pursue weaseliness instead. I’m not sure I would buy him as a romantic lead. I would definitely buy him as a child molester, though.
And so he is in the dismal, overcast “The Woodsman,” playing Walter, a pedophile who has just returned to his hometown of Philadelphia after a 12-year prison sentence. He finds an apartment, unfortunately located adjacent to an elementary school, which I doubt any real-life parole board would tolerate. He also finds a job at a lumberyard, working with wood, his primary skill. (Keep your naughty jokes to yourselves.)
Life is not easy for Walter. His nosy co-worker Alana (rapper Eve) wants to know what he went to prison for, and a mistrustful cop (Mos Def) doesn’t believe Walter will be part of the minority of pedophiles who successfully reform. No one trusts him, and he barely trusts himself. His therapist recommends keeping a journal, in which he expresses his torment and the difficulty of resisting temptation.
He falls into a relationship with Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick, Bacon’s real-life spouse), a wounded, mildly trashy full-grown woman who gets past his weaknesses and tries to see the good in him. Seeing Bacon and Sedgwick, a married couple, go at it is a bit odd, but hey, if they don’t mind us watching….
The screenplay, by director Nicole Kassell (this is her first feature in either capacity), uses more shorthand than it ought to, culling most of Mos Def’s dialogue from the Big Book of Movie Cop ClichÃ©s and creating a world in which seemingly everyone either molests or has been molested.
Furthermore, there is the issue of What does Walter want? Redemption? Peace? It’s hard to say. He doesn’t seem to want anything other than to just go on living. As such, it’s hard to sympathize with him. He is a child molester, after all. We need a solid, noble goal to get behind, not just a general “I wish I wasn’t screwed up” kind of mopiness.
That said, Bacon plays the role extremely well, demonstrating in a few key scenes why he’s such a highly regarded actor. He registers emotional intensity when it’s called for, and a scene in which he encounters a young girl — a potential victim — is dripping with creepy tension.
But the mood of the film is so relentlessly bleak that it’s hard to take. Even the small victories in Walter’s life are muted and underplayed, giving us little hope for his future. You say, “Well, what kind of happiness and forgiveness should a child molester have?” And I say, probably none — so why watch a movie about one? A character who is doomed from the start because of his own actions is difficult to support, and a film about him is bound to feel oppressively dark.
C (1 hr., 25 min.; )