The Woodsman

Director: Nicole Kassell

U.S.A.| 2004. Colour. Dolby digital stereo. 87 min.

This is an amazingly bold venture both for its young director, Nicole Kassell, making her feature debut, and its star and co-producer, Kevin Bacon. In recent years child abuse has become an all-too-modish subject, but most treatments have taken the easy option of demonising the abusers. The Woodsman dares to adopt the viewpoint of the paedophile himself not, as Bacon has said, to make him likeable, but simply to let us see him not as a monster but as a human being, struggling to overcome his forbidden longings.
As Walter, out on parole in his native Philadelphia after serving twelve years for molesting pre-teen girls, Bacon gives a performance of agonised inwardness. His bleak, watchful eyes, tense mouth and restless body language convey a pervading sense of shame and self-disgust, and a haunted fear of succumbing once again to his own worst impulses. Theres outstanding support from the rest of the cast: Kyra Sedgwick (Bacons real-life wife), feisty and sexy as the tough woman who becomes Walters lover; rapper Mos Def bringing an unexpected hint of mournfulness to his tough-cop role; and above all Hannah Pilkes, astonishingly subtle in her reticence and distress as the little girl Walter perilously befriends. Her scenes with Bacon treat both characters with dignity, and are handled with rare sensitivity.
Co-scripting with Stephen Fechter from whose stage-play the film is adapted Kassell avoids both sensationalism and special pleading, and effectively combines naturalistic use of her real-life Philadelphia locations with more expressionist narrative devices at moments of emotional intensity. The Woodsman is a brave, challenging movie, a powerful corrective to the overwrought hysteria that usually engulfs this edgy subject.

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