First-time filmmaker Nicole Kassell's screenplay for The Woodsman took first place in the 2001 Slamdance Film Festival screenplay competition. Slamdance is, of course, the bratty “alternative” cousin to the more genteel, upscale Sundance Film Festival. Oddly enough, the final filmed version of The Woodsman ended up nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival--which probably says more about the taming of Slamdance than it does about the edginess of Sundance.
Despite Kassell's stamp of approval from both Slamdance and Sundance, The Woodsman exists almost entirely due to the presence of star Kevin Bacon. Bacon quietly dominates the entire 87 minutes as Walter, a convicted pedophile who has just been released from jail and is trying to get his life straight in urban Philadelphia. ... Yeah, I know. It already sounds like rough sledding.
Actually, Kassell's script is deceptively lightweight, delicately tiptoeing around the uncomfortable issue of child molestation but never avoiding it entirely. The role of Walter is written pretty much like any other “hardened con just out of jail” piece. In fact, the film owes quite a bit of its look, feel and narrative to Billy Bob Thornton's excellent character drama Sling Blade.
The Woodsman follows in the footsteps of Walter, who seems determined to do the right thing now that he's out of jail. He gets an apartment, a job at a local lumber yard and a personal diary in which he's supposed to write down his innermost thoughts. Bacon does solid work here, creating a nervous, insular and still somehow sympathetic character. Walter's defense mechanism seems to be to make as little an impression as possible wherever he goes. Eventually, he takes a shine to Vickie (Bacon's real-life wife Kyra Sedgewick), a hard-living, no-nonsense tomboy from the lumber yard who is about as far from a delicate little schoolgirl as you can get.
Naturally, Walter is consumed by all sorts of angst. Chief among his worries is that he will return to his life of unacceptable urges. This conflict is only heightened by the fact that Walter's apartment overlooks the neighborhood elementary school. (Yeah, it's one of the film's more unbelievable elements; but it works in the context of the story.) Also troubling Walter is his straight-talking parole officer, Sgt. Lucas (Mos Def, still the most welcome rap star on the silver screen), who knows all too well the high recidivism rate among sex offenders.
Although it sounds like the formula for an increasingly icky film, Kassell imagines the whole thing as a simple fairy tale about good and evil. The film's title refers partially to Walter's career, but also to the character of “The Woodsman” in Little Red Riding Hood. Over the course of the film, Walter takes notice of another pedophile hanging out at the schoolyard across the street. The film's big question becomes “Will Walter ultimately do the right thing?” Kassell's low-key script doesn't provide many large narrative surprises. That this is the story of a wounded man-child on the road to redemption is never really in doubt. Still, moments like the showstopper in which Walter confronts an 11-year-old girl in the local park, are enough to give viewers an icy pinprick of uncertainty.
Despite great work from Sedgewick and others, Bacon is still the real draw here, delivering the sort of lived-in character study he's rarely asked to contribute on screen. It's almost a shame the film is such a humble little thing. It just doesn't have enough fireworks to catch the attention of the Academy and land him an Oscar nod. The film has a subtle power, though, and should strike a chord with audiences adventurous enough to see it.
In the end, perhaps Kassell's lauding by both Slamdance and Sundance is appropriate, considering the sort of tightrope the film so elegantly walks between gritty reality and redemptive morality play.
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