Rehab for a pervert

Kevin Bacon stars in The Woodsman as newly paroled sex offender Walter Rossworth with Eve, Mos Def, and Kyra Sedgwick.

I'm OK, you ... we're not too sure about

A popular diversion among movie mavens consists of identifying the fewest possible titles that link another actor to Kevin Bacon. Bacon, who is 46, will presumably be performing for many more years, and as the number of his screen roles approaches infinity the degree of separation from him approaches zero.

The part that Bacon plays in his latest project, The Woodsman, might encourage an outraged viewer to insist on 180 degrees of separation. Even cannibal Hannibal Lecter and serial killer Aileen Wournos might not seem as monstrous as a man who molests pubescent girls. It took considerable courage for Bacon to produce this film, based on a stage play by Steven Fechter and directed by newcomer Nicole Kassell, and to star in the part of a sexual deviant. Bacon's Walter Rossworth has not only violated the trust and flesh of minors before the drama begins, but he is now largely affectless. Withdrawn and taciturn, Walter possesses none of the wicked flamboyance of Humbert Humbert, who defiles the nymphet known as Lolita, or even the pathetic hysteria of the child murderer played by Peter Lorre in Fritz Lang's Yet. As Walter tells his brother-in-law Carlos (Bratt), the only member of his family still speaking to him, "I'm not a monster."

By the end of The Woodsman, Bacon succeeds in convincing a viewer that Walter is right at least in this, or that monstrosity is linked to our common humanity.

During the opening credits, Walter is released after 12 years of prison. Because landlords do not cherish ex-cons, all he can find to rent is an austere apartment across from an elementary school. Fully aware of the irony and agony of his situation, Walter measures that it is precisely 320 feet from his doorway to the bodies of vulnerable children. A skilled carpenter, he takes a job in a lumberyard, where a nosy receptionist (Eve) soon uncovers the new employee's shameful secret and spreads it to the others. Walter's sister refuses to have anything to do with him, and a self-righteous detective (Def) shows up periodically to taunt him for his degeneracy. "I don't know why they keep letting freaks like you out on the street," says Sergeant Lucas, exacerbating Walter's own self loathing.

The Woodsman derives its title not only from Walter's work with lumber or even - in a film that makes explicit mention of erections - to the slang for male tumescence. At one point, Sergeant Lucas recalls that at the end of the famous fairy tale, a woodsman retrieves Little Red Riding Hood from the stomach of a wolf.

The Woodsman is no fairy tale, though it does suggest the transformation of a pedophile into protector. Staring out a window into the schoolyard, Walter spies on a man who seems to be preying on boys. By foiling his vile plans, can Walter subdue his own most odious instincts? Yet throughout the film, Walter remains tormented by illicit temptations, notably during an excruciating scene in which he shares a park bench with a lonely 11-year-old named Robin (Pilkes). "Will I ever be normal?" Walter asks his therapist. The answer, from the psychologist as well as The Woodsman, is that normalcy is nebulous, for everyone.

   The Woodsman

Dir. Nicole Kassell; writ. Kassell, Steven Fechter; feat. Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Benjamin Bratt, Mos Def, Eve, Hannah Pilkes (R)

Though it refuses the facile Hollywood consolation of virtuous redemption, the film does promise that the love of a good woman can salvage a creep. Vickie (Sedgwick), a feisty fellow lumber worker with painful secrets of her own, sees beyond the surliness in which Walter seeks to armor himself. She pursues him even after learning, in a post-coital conversation, the nature of his misdeeds. Her immediate reaction is incredulous, defensive laughter. "Twelve years in prison is no joke," insists Walter. Neither is the sequel, though Vickie manages to bring the soupçon of a smile to his grim visage. Despite her flaws, Vickie is a blunt and brazen character a viewer can easily learn to like. So can Walter.

Through minute degrees of effort, Bacon succeeds in bringing to life a deadpan. Shunned by others and despised by himself, Bacon's Walter is a man who communicates through muteness. "OK," he answers in the beginning, when asked by the therapist about his job, apartment, and life. In the final line of the script, Walter declares: "I feel OK." In the world of The Woodsman, I'm OK you're OK. The formula works only because OK, like normal, remains so ambiguous and elusive, for characters as well as viewers. What if the wolf who devours grandma also disguises himself as the woodsman? This is a somber drama in which Walter is not alone in being alone, but it stops short of stressing that in the old fairy tale the grown-up woman, like young Little Red Riding Hood, gets devoured by a wolf.

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