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Woodsman, The

Reviewed By Erik Childress
Posted 02/06/04 11:02:44

"Is That Really An Appropriate Title?"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

To say that Michael Jackson would fit right into the neighborhood depicted in The Woodsman would be to denigrate the subject matter which it takes so seriously. To say that nearly every character in the film is either a molester or has been molested in some way would be a fact that most people would find quite ridiculous and impractical. To say that Kevin Bacon turns in yet another solid performance, strengthening his case as the most underappreciated talent in movies would be an understatement that’s worth saying over and over.

Bacon is Walter, a convicted child molester who has just served 12 years in prison. In the first of several contrivances, the only apartment he could find overlooks a children’s playground. Despite counting the steps the courts would apparently allow in proximity to the forbidden fruit, it’s a wonder why a parolee with his record wouldn’t be set up a few more blocks away from the nearest school.

Walter’s sister (with a young daughter) wants nothing to do with him, but brother-in-law Keith (Benjamin Bratt) chooses to return the respect he was given when he was considered nothing but the brown boy marrying the white girl. Set up with a job in a factory, Walter wants to keep a low profile and unintentionally raises the hackles of a nosey secretary (Eve) because he wouldn’t eat her sandwich. More promising on the woman front is Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick, sexier than ever), a forklift driver who quickly forks Walter and begins a love affair.

But old habits die hard and Walter can’t help but sneak-a-peek at that playground and even notices someone who may have a similar habit in the “strangers with candy” variety. His court-appointed psychiatrist (Michael Shannon) advises him to keep a journal of his thoughts and a detective (Mos Def) who has clearly seen Morgan Freeman in Johnny Handsome too many times, keeps turning up to remind Walter that Big Brother is waiting to see him mess up again.

The drama of the film is the same as films like Johnny Handsome or Sling Blade in whether or not a man with a second chance will fall back on his old ways. Bacon’s tremendous performance is so full of shame and reticent anger that he keeps us on edge as to whether or not he’ll be able to contain himself. The film, based on a play by co-screenwriter Steven Fechter, does not offer any easy explanations for Walter’s attraction, nor could it. Perhaps childhood experimentation led to associations of pleasure and its difficult to deny oneself of that.

Audiences may not last through the constant discoveries of personal demons, the hateful secretary-as-public conscience and recurring omissions of “Candy” in Walter’s talks with the detective. There’s nothing pleasant about the material and it’s consistent machinations may hinder one’s tolerance for the final scenes where Walter makes a move to “stay on the bus.” The performances from Bacon on down to Sedgwick, Bratt and Mos Def are enough to carry anyone through and these final moments with a terrific young actress named Hannah Pilkes are suspenseful and heartbreaking enough to wash away the sins of the text.

The Woodsman plays like a parallel universe to Mystic River, where Bacon’s Sean Devine was the one to get in the car in the beginning. Walter’s world isn’t one dictated to him by unfortunate circumstance, at least not his pre-conviction world. His afterlife so to speak tempts him like the Garden of Eden with fresh fruit and as David Mamet once said “if you’re afraid of getting a rotten apple, don’t go to the barrel, get it off the tree.” But he also said, “the only second chance we get in life is to make the same mistake twice.” Walter has his chance not to practice what Mamet preaches and Nicole Kassell's The Woodsman is a solid drama that provides him all of the temptation and us every chance to make up our own minds. That’s what I say.

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