Dir: Nicole Kassel. US. 2004. 85mins.
As Capturing The Friedmans made abundantly clear, there is no crime more heinous in the public imagination than paedophilia. So a dramatic feature that has a paedophile as its protagonist would seem to be engaging in taboo for taboo's sake. Which is why The Woodsman, which screened in the Dramatic Competition at Sundance, is such a revelation. Like Dead Man Walking, the film presents a realistic portrait of a man rather than a sketch of monster while never letting him, or us, forget that this man is guilty of the crimes for which he served 12 years in prison.
Guided by a career-topping performance by Kevin Bacon (who also executive produced) and excellent supporting roles, the film enjoyed strong critical reaction and respectful if wary attention from buyers, among whom Newmarket stepped forward to take US rights. Regardless of her film's challenging commercial fate, debut director Nicole Kassel is undoubtedly one to watch.
Just released from prison on supervised parole, Walter (Bacon) is wretched and angry. He lands a job at a lumber yard based on his past experience with the owner's elderly father - before prison Walter was a furniture builder - but he is put on notice that a single stray step will lead to termination. Walter has one personal relationship, with his brother-in-law (Bratt), who remembers a distant kindness but keeps him at arms length, and two antagonistic professional ones: a court-appointed therapist and a supervisory police officer (Mos Def).
At work, Walter's intense privacy and lack of interest in his fellow employees attracts the attention of Vickie (Sedgwick), who, as the only female on the factory floor, is accustomed to harassment. Slowly, he lets her into his life only to abruptly turn her out when confronted with the inevitable truth-telling. Meanwhile, his co-workers have no inkling of his crime until a prying secretary (Eve) conducts her own online investigation.
Although based on a play - by Steven Fechter, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kassel - the film does not suffer any of the staginess that often mars such adaptations while benefiting from some exceptional dialogue, particularly the scenes with Bacon and Sedgwick, who are real-life partners. It turns the table on the audience, asking us to consider the question, 'What's the worst thing you ever did''
Kassel provides simple powerful images to establish Walter's nature - a children's ball comes bouncing out of playground and into his waiting hands. These moments, and sequences where Walter begins to slip into his bad old habits are intensely felt. We feel sorry for this wretch, urging his unseen sister to show her face and reconcile. Later, through his therapy, it becomes clear that, although Walter doesn't remember it that way, his sister was his first victim.
This duality is repeated in all of the characters, and to great effect. Vickie is appalled and then accepting as she admits being victimised by her own brothers. The policeman who harasses and verbally abuses Walter is reprehensible on the first visit. But on the second visit he tells the story of a child stolen from her home and the subsequent discovery of her defiled corpse. 'Why do they let freaks you out just so that we have to come and catch you again.' The title refers to the hero of Little Red Riding Hood, the woodsman who cuts open the belly of the wolf from which steps the little girl unscathed. 'There is no woodsman in this world,' says the policeman.
If there is one weakness it's the insertion of a tertiary character Walter identifies as a kindred spirit - except that his prey is little boys, which might be construed as being a worse crime. Still, this 'worse guy' plays a crucial metaphorical role in a climactic sequence when an agitated Walter, having backed away from his own abyss, comes across the man in the presence of a little boy. As Walter rains blows on the man, the man's face is replaced by Walter's own.
This is a powerful and important story that deserves to find an audience. Rarely, if ever, has a film drawn attention to this central contradiction and hypocrisy of Western society, the sexualisation of children, the prevalence of sexual abuse, and the more shocking urge to deny it.
Production companies/int'l sales: Lee Daniels Films
US dist: Newmarket Films
Executive producers: Kevin Bacon, Damon Dash, Brook and Dawn Lenfest
Producers: Lee Daniels
Screenplay: Nicole Kassel, Steven Fechter
Cinematography: Xavier Perez Grobet
Editor: Brain A Kates, Lisa Fruchtman
Main cast: Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Benjamin Bratt, Mos Def, Eve