The Woodsman (15)

Meet Walter, the paedophile you might pity
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Until now, to my knowledge, there has only been one sympathetic paedophile in American film. That was the careworn suburban dad in Todd Solondz's Happiness (1998), a film which suggested that in an entirely dysfunctional society, a practising child molester who nevertheless felt a strong sense of family responsibility might actually be considered no less normal than anyone else. Audaciously provocative as Happiness was, in some respects its blackly comic register allowed it to deal more easily with a taboo subject than if it had been in deadly earnest. Nicole Kassell's The Woodsman, by comparison, is totally earnest, and doesn't have the luxury of satiric ambiguity as a safety net. Kassell's severe wager is that she'll take us inside the head of a paedophile, show us how it might feel to grapple with impermissible urges, and make us sympathise with the character.

Until now, to my knowledge, there has only been one sympathetic paedophile in American film. That was the careworn suburban dad in Todd Solondz's Happiness (1998), a film which suggested that in an entirely dysfunctional society, a practising child molester who nevertheless felt a strong sense of family responsibility might actually be considered no less normal than anyone else. Audaciously provocative as Happiness was, in some respects its blackly comic register allowed it to deal more easily with a taboo subject than if it had been in deadly earnest. Nicole Kassell's The Woodsman, by comparison, is totally earnest, and doesn't have the luxury of satiric ambiguity as a safety net. Kassell's severe wager is that she'll take us inside the head of a paedophile, show us how it might feel to grapple with impermissible urges, and make us sympathise with the character.

One thing that helps first-time director Kassell to make her paedophile approachable is that he's played by Kevin Bacon, everyone's idea of a dependable, down-to-earth guy. In fact, Bacon has played a whole repertoire of disturbed, violent or sleazy characters - the crazed scientist in Hollow Man, the drawling hustler in JFK, indeed a sexually abusive reform school guard in Sleepers - yet a patina of no-nonsense dudehood somehow clings to his overall image. This is partly a result of his work ethic, partly a mark of his ability to disappear so thoroughly into films that his darker roles don't impinge on his public image, such as it is. For every new part, Bacon starts with a blank slate - which is more than his character Walter is able to do in The Woodsman.

As the film starts, Walter emerges from prison, moves into new lodgings, reports for a new job in a timber yard. This taciturn, blank-faced man clearly has a secret, which isn't explicitly identified for some time, though it's heavily signalled in the almost elephantine irony of his only being able to find an apartment opposite a junior school (entailing poignant, ominous shots of him gazing at an empty playground). In fact, Walter has just served 12 years in prison for molesting young girls.

Although he has been released, Walter still keeps himself imprisoned, altogether punitively. He's buttoned up, neatly combed down, his voice toneless, his face barely registering an expression; as the saying goes, he keeps his head down. The only desire he'll admit to is the agonised urge to know, as he repeatedly asks his therapist, "When will I be normal?" Then, despite initial mutual wariness, Walter starts a relationship with a tough, sexually forthright, obscurely angry co-worker Vickie (played by Kyra Sedgwick, Bacon's wife). She has been warned that Walter is "damaged goods", which may be why she gravitates towards him; she turns out to be fairly damaged herself.

The film's press notes mention Vladimir Nabokov's story about being inspired to write Lolita after reading an article about an ape that produced a charcoal drawing - of the bars of its cage. Walter's story is about the world seen through the bars of his consuming, distorting desire. We sense the absolute constriction of his world, in which he has nothing - no home, no possessions, no family, barely a personality, and no interests except the shadow of the passion that has coloured the whole world for him. There's no spare fat to the film, narratively or visually: it began as a play by Steven Fechter, which he and Kassell have adapted, though with little "opening-out". Photographed by Xavier Pérez Grobet, the stark interiors and grey featureless streets of the Philadelphia location become correlatives for Walter's draconian self-repression.

While Vickie holds out the promise of salvation, Walter fears it's only a matter of time before he yields to his old demons. Sure enough, he finds himself following a solitary 11-year-old girl named Robin (an arrestingly steely performance from young Hannah Pilkes). His conversations with her are the film's turning point, with their bitter, if predictable, revelation about the "normal" world.

What's most extraordinary in these encounters is the way Bacon plays the girl's effect on Walter. As if under a spell, or on a drug, Walter opens up, his eyes widen, his body language loosens, and - despite the act that he's contemplating - he looks oddly innocent. He's become a little boy, regressing to the childhood he's never been able to leave.

Walter is not the only person here for whom childhood is a fraught issue, although the script adeptly keeps us uncertain how much its insights are filtered through Walter's perspective; he detects something unhealthy in his brother-in-law's (Benjamin Bratt) adoration of his little daughter, but we don't know how much is Walter's insider insight, how much warped projection.

More questionable, however, is the use of an "other" to measure Walter against. Hovering around the schoolyard is a confident, sporty young type Walter names "Candy", who seems to know all the tricks for winning the confidence of young boys. Walter is convinced it won't be long before Candy scores - and I use the term advisedly, since when Candy does abduct a boy, the film lurches in tone and presents the event in a parodic sports commentary. I think I can see the point of this jarring facetiousness: the horror of the situation heightened by its merging, like a bad dream, with the voice on Walter's TV, possibly suggesting his involuntary complicity with Candy.

But Candy is an awkward device: although apparently real, he really functions as a symbolic opposite to Walter, the part of himself he's trying to conquer. Even so, it sometimes feels too convenient to oppose the two. The film is careful to have Walter insist that he never hurt the girls he molested, that he's nothing like the violent predators whose work haunts the nightmares of local detective Sgt Lucas (Mos Def). And the conclusion of the Candy story allows Walter a questionable catharsis, fitting too neatly into the classic two-fisted logic of American drama, redemption through violence.

I may be wrong - perhaps a second viewing would reveal greater ambiguities, and deeper shades of self-deception on Walter's part.

Overall, The Woodsman is a serious, intelligent, understated film, albeit with a certain familiar American-indie heaviness in the visual execution - cinema in work boots, as it were. Both Bacon and Sedgwick are extraordinary. And a discreet scene-stealer is rapper-turned-actor Mos Def, as the quietly anguished cop who sporadically turns up to lean on Walter and hang on him the responsibility for the horrors he's seen. For all the intensity of his dialogue, he's unsettlingly gentle and languid, and his final scene with Bacon is terrifically oblique, conveying a tacit complicity between two men who've gazed into the abyss, from opposite sides. It rounds off an American drama with a distinct touch of Dostoevsky.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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