Red balls, red jackets, cherry oak desks, caged birds, fairy tales, the woods, wood, woodsmen, lumber yards yes, some movies offer a buffet of metaphors. And yet, through all of its obvious symbolism -- along with thinly sketched characters, portentous filmmaking technique and vague narrative -- writer-director Nicole Kassell's The Woodsman remains an affecting piece of work. Maybe it's because of the subject matter: pedophilia. Maybe it's because of the star: Kevin Bacon. Or maybe it's because movies can rise above their flaws and, just barely, the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. If The Woodsman does this, it does it just barely.
Bacon portrays Walter, who has just earned conditional parole after 12 years in prison for pedophilia. Walter spends the rest of the movie's 87 sparse minutes trying to get his life back together, even though the odds are most assuredly stacked against him: A new co-worker (Eve) at the lumber yard quickly learns about his past, a detective (Mos Def) harasses and stalks him, and his normally sympathetic brother-in-law (Benjamin Bratt) draws the line at his daughter's birthday party. The only apartment he can rent is one overlooking an elementary school, where he almost immediately sees another pedophile he dubs "Candy" searching for fresh meat.
But what's the most unnerving of all is the fact that, like most pedophiles (or most addicts, for that matter), Walter is not "cured," and his propensity to stare at and follow little girls will go down as one of the bigger creep-out vibes of recent film-watching.
Kassell has noted an inspiration from the American indie films of the late 1960s and early '70s -- our French New Wave, if you will. But her choice of like-minded technique (jump cuts, freeze frames, etc.) is random in tone, only serving to shut down this story, adapted by Kassell and Steven Fechter from Fechter's stage play. And the decision to frame Candy's seduction of a young boy to the tune of sports commentary must have come from a late-night bong session.
Funny thing is, The Woodsman and its star are at their most effective in those creepiest moments. While Bacon should never be confused for the Olivier of his generation, his swagger-and-sneer charm has made him one of the more effective character actors around. The strut that fueled everything from Footloose to A Few Good Men is slowed almost to a crawl here; Walter is a study in repression and compression as he plods along with his fists stuffed inside his jacket. He's so uncertain he can barely laugh at his own jokes.
While the deck is stacked against Walter, he has a few people in his corner: a gruff yet curly-blonde co-worker Vicki (real-life wife Kyra Sedgwick), his therapist (Michael Shannon) and his reluctant employer (David Alan Grier). Vicki rather quickly seduces Walter, not caring about his baggage until she's hooked on him. "What's the worst thing you've ever done?" Walter asks her when being prodded about his Big Secret, after another lovemaking session. Despite his feeble defense that he never "hurt" any of his victims, Vicki is forced to wonder if she's backing the right horse. Sedgwick has never been able to convince anyone that she's a tough chick, and despite labored efforts in this film is still hitless on this account. But like the movie itself, she gets an A for effort in standing in for the audience: She wants to like Walter, even support him, but eeeewwww.
Then there is the symbolism that Kassell sprinkles throughout the film, hoping that the metaphors will cover up a limited story. There's a red ball that bounces through the schoolyards of Walter's imagination, and the red jacket worn by what we fear might be his next victim, a little girl who shares Walter's love of birds. The wood motifs that run throughout The Woodsman require advanced mathematics to calculate, but are all wrapped up in the titular nod to the story of Little Red Riding Hood, in which the woodsman takes an axe to the belly of the Big Bad Wolf to rescue the girl. The dismissive detective recounts the tale for Walter, and in doing so Mos Def seems almost ready to quit his day job as one of hip-hop's greatest rappers. "There is no woodsman, Walter," he cautions.
Audiences may cringe, but the movie finds its core just as Walter explores his core, succumbing to the temptation to talk to his own little red-hooded girl -- in the woods, of course. But this is where Walter relaxes, smiles, becomes engaged -- alive, if you will. It's an utterly jarring moment of acting on the part of Bacon, who noted in a recent NPR Weekend Edition piece that The Woodsman is faithful to the essence of pedophiles in that many of them relate to children better than to others. "When will I be normal?" Walter asks his therapist. The Woodsman takes pride in not knowing the answer. Thanks to Bacon's gutsy performance, we can live with the ellipsis.