The Woodsman (15)

4.00

Out in the cold

It's never quite happened for Kevin Bacon. It may be just a vagary of the star system, but his almost-handsomeness and the suspicion of something snide in those pointy features could be why he's been consistently under appreciated. The angular young man who made an impact as the mixed-up rich kid in
Diner would, after romantic-hero promise, be relegated to supporting roles, and even when he excelled in them - brilliant as a gay hustler in
JFK, deftly restrained as the cop in
Mystic River - his career didn't pick up the necessary momentum.

It's never quite happened for Kevin Bacon. It may be just a vagary of the star system, but his almost-handsomeness and the suspicion of something snide in those pointy features could be why he's been consistently under appreciated. The angular young man who made an impact as the mixed-up rich kid in Diner would, after romantic-hero promise, be relegated to supporting roles, and even when he excelled in them - brilliant as a gay hustler in JFK, deftly restrained as the cop in Mystic River - his career didn't pick up the necessary momentum.

His latest role, in The Woodsman, has already won plaudits (though not, significantly, award nominations) and one can only hope that enough people will see it to find out why. Sadly, the film's subject matter is of a kind likely to keep them away. Bacon plays Walter, a convicted paedophile who's been released after 12 years in prison and is now trying to slip back into society as unobtrusively as he can. (That the authorities have seen fit to rehouse a paroled child-molester in an apartment opposite an elementary school is one of the film's few mis-steps). Walter gets work at a local lumber mill, where his prison pallor initially goes unremarked; if he kept his head down any lower it would be resting around his ribcage. He clings to his solitude as if it were his destiny.

Society slowly leaks through his defences. His brother-in-law (Benjamin Bratt) enlists him in a beery camaraderie, while the question he asks of his shrink is inevitably the one which has no answer: "When will I be normal?". Bacon conveys the loneliness of the ex-con in a beautifully contained and sombre performance. We see in his eyes the haunting fear of exposure and of the social ostracism that will follow, yet it's also the deeper fear of what he knows himself capable of. When fellow worker Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick) begins to take an interest in him, one feels the creeping dread of his secret being unlocked. "Something happened to you," she says, trying to cajole him into confessing, and I waited for the moment of truth in what can only be described as a full body cringe.

First-time director Nicole Kassell shapes the film around the lead performance - Bacon is in almost every scene. And Kyra Sedgwick, Bacon's real-life missus, does good work here as Vickie, her tough-broad act hiding a secret of her own that will bond her uncertainly to Walter.

So much of the film is played in this low key that you begin to wonder if Kassell can handle drama as adroitly as she does character. Will it spring from the coolly hostile cop (Mos Def) who's on Walter's case? Or from the secretary who's orchestrated a whispering campaign at the sawmill? Or will it concern the paedophile whom Walter has spotted hanging around the school opposite?

In fact, none of these becomes the dominant focus, though all of them conspire to reawaken Walter's illicit urges. As he rides the bus home, or visits a mall, or walks down the block, the film locates something ominous in his eyeline. The shy, chastened man we have come to know hasn't beaten his demons, he's just in hiding from them.

They finally resurface as he takes to following an 11-year-old girl (Hannah Pilkes) through a park; when the two eventually sit down on a bench and begin talking, one feels an almost intolerable constriction pressing on the heart. Poignantly, the only time we see Walter smile is in the company of this child, who seems to know more than she lets on. Her passion is birdwatching, which itself involves a kind of stalking, as she explains to him: "Birds like being watched, as long as they know you won't hurt them".

This scene, the standout of the film, is so exquisitely weighted and acted that what follows - once we've caught our breath - feels something of a letdown. Searching for catharsis, the film climaxes in a bout of violence that's meant to express a comparative moral judgement on paedophile behaviour but actually looks dishonest. Having worked so honourably to present Walter as a forlorn soul whose sexuality is a mystery as much as an affliction, it belatedly forces him into a more audience-friendly role as social avenger. This shouldn't in any way diminish Kevin Bacon's bravery for taking on a type that might be the most demonised in all America.

The Woodsman, a serious and thoughtful drama on a hideously difficult subject, deserves the warmest praise and the widest possible audience. It is certain to secure one of these.

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