Kevin Bacon is no hack in ‘The Woodsman’

Jon Dieringer

“Let’s play…dodgeball!” Unfortunately, Kevin Bacon does not sock it to Ben Stiller in The Woodsman.

Credit: Beth Rankin

As much as the best comedy encourages its audience to laugh at what it otherwise might find offensive, sometimes the best drama has its audience identify with the most unlikely characters.

In The Woodsman, Kevin Bacon plays Walter, a man who must put his life back together in the shadow of a dark past, and the audience is compelled to understand his humanity despite his immorality.

Walter has just been released on parole after spending 12 years in prison. Only two people on the outside know his crime: Carlos (Benjamin Bratt), his brother-in-law and best friend who helps him find an apartment, and Bob (an effectively non-comedic David Alan Grier), the foreman of the local lumberyard who reluctantly hires Walter because of his reputation for good work.

Both men treat Walter with respect but extremely guarded behavior, as if they are trying too hard to act normal around him, the way one would treat a family member with the plague. Whatever Walter did, it is obviously horrible. And although his crime isn’t revealed until several scenes into the movie, it is impossible to comment on the film without disclosing it.

Walter is a pedophile, something revealed as matter-of-factly on screen as in this review.

A co-worker (Eve) with a crush on Walter feels burned when she finds out that he has molested children and reacts by photocopying his rap sheet and posting it all over the lumberyard. “The people have a right to know,” she smugly says when scolded by the foreman. Of course, she’s not actually making this argument, which only draws attention to the fact that the film isn’t, either.

The Woodsman is without a political or social agenda, functioning as an impartial character study that argues not for sex offender law reform, harsher treatment for sex offenders or anything else, for that matter.

More than any other character, it is Walter who doubts that he has been reformed, and viewers are asked to sympathize with his confusion, not his crime. This perspective is given as Walter watches out his window every morning to observe another pedophile on the street trying to pick up young boys. It is easy to imagine what Walter is thinking—does he identify with this man or despise him?

Crucial to appreciating The Woodsman is not just understanding what is said, but also what isn’t said. Much of what can be learned about the characters, their intent and their sincerity is gathered by studying their faces. The narrative isn’t enhanced by the acting—it relies on it.

In that respect, the film’s success is the actors’. Enough has been written about Bacon as an under-appreciated actor—he is a great actor, and that has criminally gone unsaid for too long. Bacon acts as real people live life, as if at any given moment he hasn’t read the rest of the script. Never does Bacon’s performance suggest that he is comfortably heading down the path toward his character’s resolution, offering no clues as to where his ultimate fate lies—and who could in his or her own life?

Although it is far from suggesting that Walter has overcome his lust for underage girls, he finds a girlfriend in Vickie, a tough-as-nails woman from the lumberyard. She is played by Bacon’s real-life wife Kyra Sedgwick, who in one crucial moment must deliver the most controlled performance of the film.

When Walter reveals his crime to Vickie, she kindly, but ineffectively tries to identify with him by sharing her past involvement in activities that carry a similar stigma to Walter’s crime.

Yet for her, the past is the past, so she can’t relate to Walter on this level with any less superficiality than two people at a party discovering they have common interests. Their love cannot be based on Vickie’s ability to identify with Walter’s ailment, but rather her constant encouragement for him to rise above it.

Opposite her is Sgt. Lucas (Mos Def), Walter’s parole officer, who feels that sex offenders shouldn’t be released from prison in the first place and will do anything to make Walter give him a reason to put him back in jail.

Mos Def gives an effectively understated performance as Lucas quietly rubs his chin, torturing Walter with his presence while he tries to discover and exploit all of Walter’s self-doubts. Mos Def’s ability to dwarf the presence of the far more seasoned Bacon is essential to the effectiveness of their scenes together and a testament to his surprisingly great acting.

The Woodsman has been snubbed by the Academy Awards for its screenplay and acting and largely ignored by the press. Perhaps people aren’t willing to accept a film with a character who has committed such morally repugnant acts.

However, it’s important to understand that there is often a distinction between a human being and his or her actions. People don’t need to be forgiven for things they have done, but if we can try to understand their struggles, we might see that they parallel our own. It is understanding, not forgiveness, that The Woodsman tries to elicit, and it is on this ground that it succeeds.

Contact pop arts reporter Jon Dieringer at [email protected].