Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Woodsman


Dir: Nicole Kassell (First film)

Gutsy film dancing around the edges of a sympathetic view of a child molester. Kevin Bacon, after his release from prison, gets a job and tries to assimilate back into the normal world. He takes up with Kyra Sedgwick, an outcast who herself wrestles with the effects of past abuse. Over the film, Bacon must try to resist the temptation to repeat his crimes and maneuver an outraged and impatient set of peers.

This is the sort of film I am predisposed to like, because it tells a story that I haven't seen before. In order to avoid the facile qualities of an after school special, the script finds places for us to identify with and care about the deeply flawed protagonist. Indeed, the entire cast seems to share the scars that he has inflicted, on one end or the other. The ubiquity of tragedy throughout the film makes everything feel dirty and dark. The whole world is screwed up, and people like Bacon are on one end and we are on the other. But everyone is a part of it.

Bacon's performance is very good for its understatement, the sort of thing Philip Seymour Hoffman is perfect at. Bacon's character is the ultimate introvert, hiding his shame and his demons from the rest of us. He blissfully resists the temptation to overact. The supporting cast is even stronger, though. Sedgwick is tough as nails, and Benjamin Bratt is rather good too as Bacon's sympathetic yet skeptical brother-in-law. But the supporting show is stolen by Mos Def as the philosophical detective who has his eye on Bacon. His lines are nice, but he gives them a tremendously mysterious quality, a real depth beneath his reflections on temptation and evil that were quite thrilling to watch. He has some real talent.

The film, while full of good points, fails to really pay off in the way that would make it essential. And I am not sure how it could. The subject matter is so inexplicable, so raw and real in the lives of so many, that the film cannot really offer any solution. The film's answer lies in an identification between the two ends of the crime, a recognition of the other that causes a hesitation of one's own compulsion. But I didn't need this film to tell me that. The movie does showcase the too often ignored and yet rampant phenomenon of sibling/sibling molestation, an important twist of focus from grubby uncles in dirty overcoats that should be applauded.

We will not punish a film because its story is ambitious. The writing, directing, and especially the acting are solid all around. And the theme of the project is a very important one, as society continues to elevate the protection of children above all other goals. The Woodsman makes this issue more complex, a welcome nuance to the Nancy Grace/Mark Foley approach to the problem that currently dominates out national discourse.