Woodsman: Psychological Medlodrama, Well Acted by Kevin Bacon

A sincere but pedestrian melodrama, Nicole Kessel’s “The Woodsman,” showcases Kevin Bacon, an actor usually cast in character parts, in a lead role, as a former convicted pedophile, struggling to adjust to his new civilian life. If this movie were made a decade or two ago, it would have been shocking, but, in today’s context, the subject is neither new nor disturbing.

I have not seen Steven Fechter’s play, upon which the film is based, so I have no ways to determine its degree of faithfulness to the source material. However, in its current shape, The Woodsman is a muddled psychological melodrama. Not much is revealed about the central character and, at the end of the film, with all the sympathy that Kessel elicits for him, he still remains an enigma.

Kessel may mean the story to be an allegory. You may recall that in the classic fairytale Little Red Riding Hood, it was the Woodsman who rescued the little girl out of the stomach of the big bad wolf.

The film is only 87-minute long, but it feels much longer, due to the unexciting filmmaking. As for Bacon, he renders a commendable but one-note performance, with no highs and lows, a combined result of the routine writing and static direction.

Bacon (who also executive-produced) plays Walter, a middle-aged child molester who’s released after 12 years in prison. In the first chapters, Walter is rejected by his closest kin, his conservative sister. After finding a job at a lumberyard, he struggles to develop a normal, habitual life, which centers on his daily bus rides to work.

All of the secondary characters are familiar types from other similar dramas. Walter has to endure his parole officer, Sgt. Lucas (Mos Def), as well as a callow court-appointed therapist. As a result, he becomes even more introverted. Keeping to himself, he struggles on daily basis with his demons and the fear that he might revert to his old demons. Walter is torn between revulsion for his own acts and what’s still a latent (if not more) attraction to prepubescent girls.

Occasionally, Kessell shows the edge on which Walter walks on, which is just one step beyond danger and surrender to his past. There’s a well-staged scene in the woods, when Walter encounters a little blonde girl, as if testing himself.

Overall, though, the picture is not particularly insightful or probing into Walter’s tormented psyche and inner feelings. It’s an intense, grueling struggle that Walter must face alone, save for his good-hearted brother-in-law, Carlos (Benjamin Bratt). In the film’s second half, some color is added by Walter’s feisty co-worker Vicki (Kyra Sedwick, Bacon’s real-life wife), who first looks out for him, then develops an attraction that culminates in an anxiety-ridden affair.

Since there is not much dialogue or action, everything depends on Bacon’s performance, which is striking in its spare minimalism. Bacon shows the pent-up emotions, the fear of the imminent catastrophe, the quiet and contained anxiety. Viewers may be revolted by Walter’s crime, but they’ll feel sympathy for him due to the charged humanity Bacon invests into his difficult role.

The Mark

Problem is, we have seen this story before, and in better films. In 1961, there was a gem of a British movie, Guy Green’s “The Mark,” which became best known for Stuart Whitman’s Oscar-nominated performance. “The Woodsman” tells the same story of “The Mark,” except that the 1961 movie is more poignant, nuanced, and complex.

Paroled after serving three years in prison for molesting a young girl, Whitman tries to start a new life in the British Midlands with the aid of a kind psychiatrist (Rod Steiger). Complications arise when he falls in love with Maria Shell, whose ten-year-old daughter reminds him of the girl he had molested. Just when he convinces himself that he has conquered his old deviant urges, a nasty reporter uncovers his identity and prints an expose in the newspaper. The rest of the story, and its neat resolution, are as formulaic as “The Woodsman.”

Straight Time

A superior film to both “The Mark” and “The Woodsman” is Ulu Grosbard’s “Straight Time” (1978), in which Dustin Hoffman, spivey and mustached to project seediness, plays Max Dembo, an ex-con on parole. Unlike Kessel, Grosbard chronicles the technical details of the parole system, the problems of finding accommodation and work, and the contrast between Max’s low life and the lifestyle of L.A.’s rich and famous.

Based on ex-convict Edward Bunker’s novel, No Beast So Fierce, “Straight Time” is a gripping, disturbing and unglamorized portrait of a professional thief who thrives on the thrill and danger of his actions. When the story begins, he’s released from prison after a six-year-sentence for armed robbery. Max, like Walter, tries to go straight but is continually thwarted by a slimy parole officer, Earl Frank (M. Emmet Walsh), as well as his old friends, a motley assortment of junkies and hoods.

Unlike “The Woodsman,” “Straight Time” is a powerful film that shows the criminal as he is, avoiding cliched explanations for his behavior. No fingers are pointed, and no apologies are offered for Max’s conduct. And though the parole system is taken to task for the Catch 22 type restrictions given to ex-cons, it’s not presented as an excuse for Max’s return to crime, only one panel in a complex web of factors. Moreover, the ending, unlike that of “The Woodsman,” is more realistic and ambiguous, depicting Max as he drives off into a bleak, unknown future.

“The Woodsman” lacks interesting–or any–secondary characters. In “Straight Time,” there is Gary Busey as a pathetic addict, Theresa Russell as the girl who lets Max drifts through her life, and Harry Dean Stanton as the ex-thief yearning to escape from suburban boredom. As skilled as Mos Def is in “The Woodsman” as the slimy parole officer who couldn’t care less about his charges, he’s not nearly as nasty as Emmet Walsh is.

Lacking concrete physicality, Kessel’s film is too abstract, telling a story that could have taken place anywhere. As writer and director, Kessel has made a straightforward film, directed in a restrained but ultimately boring style.

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