Ah, movies about child molesters. Why oh why aren’t there more of them?
Probably for the same reason that there aren’t more films about obviously guilty people on death row: because under the cover of trying to illuminate serious social issues they’re naked attempts to humanize rightfully demonized people. Such movies are earnest, self-righteous, and quietly confrontational, trying to convince the world that, damn it, murderers and rapists are people, too! And the only folks who see these thinly disguised political tracts are the ones who don’t need to be convinced.(Yes, I’m talking about you, Dead Man Walking.)
Director/co-writer Nicole Kassell’s The Woodsman doesn’t escape that trap entirely, but it’s surprisingly suspenseful with a strong set of characters. Based on the play by Steven Fechter, the movie follows paroled child molester Walter (Kevin Bacon) as he tries to build a new life.
But Walter’s mind is weak. When his therapist suggests writing a journal, he rejects the idea forcefully: “Evidence,” he says. A few minutes later, we’re watching him scribble in a book. The woman at work who’s interested in him (Kyra Sedgwick) asks his secret, and he declines to provide it. But when she asks again, he tells her: He molested little girls. Eventually she accepts it and him.
Of course, Walter takes shit at the lumber yard where he works, and from a cop (Mos Def) who reminds the parolee that the police are keeping a close eye on him.
But one day, when he spies a little girl all alone ... .
The suspense in The Woodsman obviously stems from this situation: Will he molest her or won’t he? These scenes have a tense power, grounded in the real world and with severe consequences for both Walter and the girl. The audience cares about the outcome, because the girl obviously represents purity that we hope is preserved, but also because the character of Walter has earned, at the least, a grudging respect for his sincere determination to do right by the world.
Yet at the start of the movie, it doesn’t look like Bacon or the script is going to give us much; he’s too steely, too closed to make a connection with the audience.
Even here, though, there’s something compelling about Bacon’s performance, particularly in the eyes. His blue jewels look literally clouded — he is a person who appears incapable of seeing clearly — and his hardened gaze is his only defense against the formidable forces he’s dealing with: the community, the past, the police, his desires.
But gradually Walter begins talking — particularly to his therapist — and he becomes real, much less of a cipher.
The film’s few attempts at artfulness are blunt and unnecessary narratively and thematically, but they manage to add something to the character of Walter. The audience doesn’t need Little Red Riding Hood motifs to understand the predator/prey dynamic, or to comprehend the loss of innocence that accompanies sexual abuse. And it surely doesn’t need its climactic “William Wilson” reference to get that Walter loathes himself. (For those who are Poe-poor, think Fight Club.)
Yet these touches help jerk the audience out of the world as they know it, and into an environment of heightened arousal — keenly, painfully aware of our surroundings, of the people watching us, of the ever-present taunt of temptation. Whatever the mindset of a sexual abuser is, it’s neither normal nor healthy, and the slightly surreal quality of The Woodsman conveys that.
Walter is initially sympathetic, but that’s at least partly a function of how we get to know him. He committed his crimes a long time ago, and the years and thankfully natural exposition give them a hazy, vague quality; the threat that Walter might pose to the community lacks the urgency and sharpness that specificity brings. Most importantly, he seems as if he genuinely wants to get better, to be normal.
That goodwill curdles, though, when Walter is alone with the little girl, and the urge is eating at him.
A curious thing happens at this point. Walter doesn’t become a villain or repulsive, but the audience’s conception of him changes. While we were looking at him as someone on the right side of the rehabilitation process — not there yet, but seemingly well on his way — now we get a sense of his struggle, and a full appreciation of his weakness. His past sins start to take a clearer shape in our heads as future ones are developing in Walter’s, and in the girl we have a face to associate with the damage Walter might inflict — and by extension has inflicted.
Here he, too, begins to comprehend his monstrousness and its effects. Walter’s foundation is shaken, and his eyes opened, by the mere awareness that his actions have repercussions beyond himself. I don’t buy it, but I’d like to.
And therein lies the source of my ambivalence about The Woodsman: It exploits the audience’s hunger for a safe world. Whether you think child molesters can be rehabilitated or whether you think they should be locked up for the rest of their lives, you’ll root for Walter for one simple reason: because sex offenders are on the street. We want to believe they’ve changed. We need to believe they’ve changed so we can live without a crippling fear for our loved ones.
The Woodsman doesn’t offer that reassurance explicitly, but it certainly doesn’t preclude it, either. The movie’s ending is appropriately ambiguous, with the future containing a multitude of paths. It’s clear that what we’ve seen is the first of dozens — perhaps hundreds — of battles between Walter’s will and his pedophilic nature.
Yet I think The Woodsman errs on the side of being too open-ended. Because the movie preys on fear, it owes the audience some firm resolution. Our daily news and Walter’s torment suggest his is a losing battle, but the film still leaves hope.
Sure, it offers a modicum of comfort, but it doesn’t speak to truth.