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aka -
USA 2005
Directed by
Nicole Cassell
87 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
4 stars

The Woodsman

Synopsis: Released from prison on parole after twelve years, Walter (Kevin Bacon) attempts to rebuild his life, working in a timberyard in a small town. He begins an tentative relationship with co-worker Vicki (Kyra Sedgwick) but he cannot escape his past.

Sounds like a standard plot line for a standard film? Not really. Two aspects make this a most noteworthy work: the performance of Bacon and the wonderfully understated treatment of its sensitive subject matter, paedophilia. Too many people flatly refuse to see certain films on the basis of their subject matter and the fact that it dares to humanise people who society has deemed to be monsters. But it is these very sorts of films that show us so much about human nature and an unforgiving society which helps perpetuate the problems. Director Cassell, in her debut feature, takes a slow-burn approach, assiduously avoiding any hint of sensationalism and only gradually revealing the nature of Walter’s crime. The visual style is deliberately low-key and pared-down, reinforced by the economy of words.

At the heart of Bacon’s performance is his grasp of Walter’s ordinariness and his ability to have us empathise with a person who normally we would revile. Walter is not amoral. He is totally aware that his urges are not acceptable and must be controlled, and he is determined to overcome them and make a fresh start. His new abode overlooks a local school and when he sees a man preying on young boys his own righteous anger surfaces. Through Bacon’s powerful and persuasive performance we are well aware of the internal self-loathing and conflict seething within the man.

The underlying theme of broken people is reflected also in the character of Vicki, herself somewhat of an outcast with a troubled past. Sedgwick is perfect for the role, imbuing her character with strength and toughness, yet also empathy and vulnerability.

Walter’s brother-in-law, Carlos (Benjamin Bratt), one of the few characters who will accept Walter, is put to exceptional use in a scene in which some of the basic hypocrisies of sexual attitudes in society are subtly driven home. Again subtlety is the key – no points are laboured, yet one goes away pondering the issues long after the film is over. Mos Def as police officer Lucas puts in a strong turn as a man who has seen too much in his career to have any glimmer of sympathy for Walter. Again it is testament to the strength of the script and the performances that as an audience we can also feel for this seemingly-hardened man.

Cassell’s restrained and sensitive approach is most evident in one of the film’s core scenes where Walter befriends Robin (Hannah Pilkes), a young girl who likes to watch birds in the local park. The scene is a quiet revelation of the hurt and despair in people’s lives. It also makes us ask if people have erred, been punished and are trying to redeem themselves, how should we respond to them?




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