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The Woodsman
cast: Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Mos Def, David Alan Grier, and Benjamin Bratt

director: Nicole Kassell

84 minutes (15) 2004
High Fliers VHS rental
Also available to rent on DVD

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
At a time when being a paediatric nurse is sufficient to have your house vandalised it takes a brave person to try and inject a little sanity and humanity into an area of human sexuality that is unique in its ability to generate fear and violence. Based on an off-Broadway play by Steven Fechter, The Woodsman is about Walter, recently released from prison for 12 years as a result of molesting little girls. He takes a job as a carpenter and slowly starts to rebuild his life and relationships both with his family and Vicki, an unconventional woman whose own dark past makes her inclined to be tolerant of Walter's problem. The film portrays paedophilia as being like a form of alcoholism; despite knowing that he shouldn't like little girls and that he certainly shouldn't act upon it, Walter swings from a desire to become 'normal' and the desire to have little girls sit on his lap. Like a pinball, Walter bounces between his psychotherapist, the arms of Vicki, an unsympathetic cop and the anger of his co-workers who discover his past. The film reaches a climax when Walter tries to convince a little girl to sit on his lap, as he talks to the little girl the scales fall from Walter's eyes and all the lies he has told himself and others are revealed for what they are. Walter realises that even those children who convince themselves that they don't mind what's happening to them do mind very much. Walter walks away from the encounter and brutally beats a paedophile that he had been watching stalk the children at a nearby school.

For a first screenplay and a second film, the creative team behind The Woodsman show an incredibly delicate touch despite the film being pretty densely symbolic. A strong cast superbly plays out the good dialogue and solid pacing. Kevin Bacon's performance shows not only incredible courage but also a technical ability that leaves you wondering why he doesn't get bigger roles than he does. Mos Def ably supports as a police sergeant who, despite himself, helps Walter along the way by playing a one-man good cop and bad cop routine. The rest of the cast including Bacon's real wife (Kyra Sedgwick) are excellent, despite this being a symbolically weighty film where there's a hell of a lot going on.

The film is essentially a psychological investigation of Walter. The film treats paedophilia as a form of addiction that can be beaten but despite being cosmetically forgiving of paedophilia, it is utterly brutal with the self-deluded Walter. Walter's paedophilia stems from his early childhood when he slept with his sister and got sexual stimulation from smelling her hair and having her sit on his lap. Even when Walter reveals his past to Vicki he mutters: "it's not what you think... I never hurt them... I'm not a monster," and talks about how he only ever did it because the little girls agreed to it. Walter has built up layers and layers of self-justifying bullshit inside himself to justify what he does and it largely succeeds as he clearly sees himself as a cut above your average paedophile. Initially the film seems to support his delusions by having Walter disdainfully watch 'Candy' a paedophile who is stalking young boys at the school opposite where Walter lives. Walter even suggests that his brother-in-law might be a paedophile because he loves his daughter but his attempt to bring everyone else down to his level is cut short when he is reminded forcefully that his brother-in-law doesn't suffer from his disease and that he'd better not try anything on with his niece. The genius of the film is that you feel sorry for Walter as he goes through this... he seems a decent guy after all. Things only start to change when Mos Def's cop introduces the theme of Little Red Riding Hood. In that fairytale, the woodsman appears and cuts the wolf open freeing the little girl unscathed. But fairytales aren't real and once a predator devours a child the damage is done. Either Walter is a wolf or he isn't... there is no halfway house. The final act of the film is the most telling though as Walter meets Robin, a literal 'Little Red Riding Hood'. Walter begins by trying to convince Robin to 'sit on his lap' and Robin refuses, but then it turns out that Robin's father has her 'sit on his lap' too and even if she's willing to do it, it always hurts and she doesn't like it at all. Here Walter seems to realise that even when they say yes it's still wrong because they're children. An interesting take on this scene is the idea that Robin is a figment of Walter's imagination. All throughout the film Walter has hallucinations of a red ball rolling towards him, giving him the opportunity to pick it up and return it to the child and therefore strike up conversation. What are the chances of Robin being a victim of abuse? What are the chances of Robin's father using the exact same euphemism and modus operandi as Walter? When Walter walks home and brutally beats up Candy, several times Walter's face replaces the flailing Candy. Clearly these two scenes show Walter trying to come to terms with what it is he really is rather than what he convinced himself he was. He did hurt those girls and he is no better than Candy, and when he beats Candy he's also beating himself, his true face.

Despite the controversial subject matter this film didn't provoke The Daily Mail into demanding its immediate banning. Remorselessly intelligent and challenging, this film steers a path between denouncing paedophilia as evil and condemning the way society treats paedophiles. It's a grownup film about a grownup subject and it's not afraid to show how difficult and complicated some problems can be to solve. At a time when the tabloids fear-monger to the point where people feel the need to start doling out mob justice this film should be compulsory viewing. You probably won't see a more intelligent film this year.
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