Film Studies: The kid stays in the picture (even if he's 46 years old...)

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Everyone likes Kevin Bacon - it's a friendly nod to an amiable guy that his name was attached to that trivia game "Six Degrees of Separation''.

Everyone likes Kevin Bacon - it's a friendly nod to an amiable guy that his name was attached to that trivia game "Six Degrees of Separation''. There was a time in his movie career when he seemed to be if not in everything, then in most things adjacent to it. He was a model of versatility or near ubiquity and even of a likeability that was coloured in hues of respect. He was an astronaut in Apollo 13, a loyal second to Tom Hanks. You can see how so reliable a player might harbour the urge to be dangerous, unavoidable or insolent. You can see how Kevin Bacon might sometimes dream of being Kevin Spacey for just a day or so, of being difficult and ego-driven - of being Kevin.

And so for several years now Kevin Bacon has been in pursuit of nasty and disturbing roles, pictures where his past-prime kid-faced appeal turned upside down, so Kevin Bacon began to resemble a baby-faced monster (he is 46). The film was never in sight of being a hit, but Bacon was unforgettable as the child-molester warder in Barry Levinson's Sleepers, a cruel soul who deserved the film's slow-hatching revenge plot, a hideous abuser of authority, a noxious unmediated pervert, he even overcame his stripling physique to menace Meryl Streep in The River Wild. You could believe there that Bacon's slack grin and his history of doing nice guys had built up a store of malice. And in In The Cut, Bacon willingly worked without credit as a jittery psycho who haunts Meg Ryan. If he wasn't the worst villain in that terribly neglected film he was an unnerving, disturbed personality, someone who kept the uneasy film on edge.

I have no reason to believe or suggest that this is a process of confession or revelation in Kevin Bacon. He seems in every apparent way to be a decent man, a hard worker and a diligent actor. He showed plainly in Mystic River that he could be the sanest or the least troubled in the male grouping without giving up a jot of compassion for his old pals. There were even those who said of that film that Bacon's laconic restraint was a necessary counter-balance to the more studied "acting'' from Tim Robbins and Sean Penn. Maybe director Clint Eastwood needed one guy in the film who shared his own weary, unsentimental fatalism over the vagaries of human nature and the sidebars of self-conscious acting. Next to the others, Bacon was not just the natural but the proof that a man can get through life by underplaying, taut reaction shots and a manifest lack of fuss.

Mystic River reminded you of Bacon's deliberately low-keyed military lawyer in A Few Good Men. Granted the unhindered histrionics of Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson in that contrived melodrama, Bacon was reassurance that there might be a few people in the military who hadn't been to the Actors Studio first. It helped ground the far-fetched plot, and he spoke for a Kevin Bacon who was a team player, as well as a cool voice of reason and self control.

That was the mature version of the sweet kid from pictures like Diner and Footloose - do you remember, let alone believe, that daft diversion in which Kevin was a hip city kid who introduces dancing to a weird, non-musical outpost of Utah society? It was Kevin and Lori Singer as the two kids in love with cutting a rug, and John Lithgow was the patriarch who regards dancing as the devil's work. Footloose was a big hit and research insists that it was made in the 20th (and not the 18th) century. Today, however, as alternatives to evolution work their way through the American curriculum its modernity becomes horribly clear.

Well, Kevin Bacon was that kid, even if he was already too old to be playing that age. James Dean was several years too old to be in high school in Rebel Without A Cause, but Dean's predicament found an ally or rescue in abrupt death. Kevin Bacon knew that all too soon he would be 30 - no matter that he could still pass for 20. For an actor he had a strange problem, and it was all in the face. It's a deep-seated youthfulness, a persistent resistance to looking your age. Tom Cruise suffers from the same condition, but in Cruise it is accompanied by a boyish radiance that is very marketable and which only now reveals itself as an obstinate block to seeming mature. Bacon, I suspect, foresaw his own problem, noted his habitual pallor, his hangdog hair and his eyes just a little too close together and decided "I could be nasty''.

All of which is prelude to Bacon's impressive new film, The Woodsman, a project he has co-produced and on which he enlists his own wife, Kyra Sedgwick, in a crucial role. It is an example of the Bacon who, thanks to the financial strength and reputation of pictures such as Mystic River, has for several years been concentrating on the development of small, independent and unusual projects. The Woodsman lacks little in the way of courage, for Bacon plays a convicted child molester just released from prison and trying to put a broken life back together again.

In America, this film has been praised and respected (though Bacon did not get an Academy nomination), but hardly anyone wants to see it. Alas, there is a kind of career courage that is not always the same as entertainment. We have so little appetite for real pain or distress - we are so greedy for exaggerations of those things. In other words, a role that "worked" for the general public in Sleepers (because there Bacon was emphatically offered as loathsome) became much tougher to take when presented as a plea for understanding.

Bacon is brilliant, credible and touching, even if the script for The Woodsman pulls one punch: an admitted offender in the past, and still prey to illicit desires, Bacon's character is not of the worst sort, not beyond remorse or the chance of redemption. But that approach requires writing and playing of a high order if a film is to reach the pathos of, say, Fritz Lang's M, where Peter Lorre is a serial killer of children who can see no way back to calm or contrition. Bacon's status is less clear cut, and so his film becomes more depressive than tragic.

Bacon might argue fairly that The Woodsman is a lot truer to life than M, but the fact remains that Lang's film was a terrifying parable whereas The Woodsman is no more or less than an earnest actor and a thoughtful man trying to be taken seriously.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

'The Woodsman' is released on Friday

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