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The Better To Bludgeon You With, My Dear

Photo by Adger Cowans

Beware of well-meaning social-issue weepies, especially ones that come bathed in Sundance gritty-indie accolades at one end of the year and pop up at the other end as Christmas offerings to Oscar. I don’t mean to be cynical, and I have no beef with a sympathetic take on child molesters so long as it’s done right, as it was in Todd Solondz’s Happiness, Andrew Jarecki’s barely documentary Capturing the Friedmans, and most admirably in Karen Moncrieff’s Blue Car, in which David Strathairn played a high school teacher unable to draw the line between mentoring and seduction.

Nicole Kassell’s The Woodsman, by contrast, is overblown melodrama, as muddle-headed as it is palpably sincere. The Woodsman comes larded with improbable serendipity, some of the blame for which presumably accrues to Steven Fechter, whose play inspired the movie and who co-wrote the ostentatiously terse screenplay with Kassell. Kevin Bacon, a versatile actor whose sharp nose, truculent glare and pockmarked cheeks have sentenced him to a lifetime portraying shifty types, is Walter, a sex offender who, having spent 12 years in jail, takes up residence in a seedy apartment right opposite, through no fault of his own, an elementary school. And dammit if another predator hasn’t parked himself outside the gates and gotten busy enticing pretty little boys into his car with candy, in full sight of Walter and miraculously unchallenged by school staff. What’s more, Walter seems to dwell in a world studded with victims of sexual abuse. For all too obvious reasons his sister won’t speak to him and barely tolerates his friendship with her husband (Benjamin Bratt). The beautiful, foul-mouthed girlfriend, sensitively played by Kyra Sedgwick, whom he meets within days of starting work at a lumberyard, is momentarily floored by his past before declaring her undying loyalty to him, as well as to the three brothers who had systematically abused her "in strict chronological order" when she was a child. And there’s more . . . . All gussied up in jump cuts, freeze-frames, in-your-face close-ups and a lofty metaphor drawn from Little Red Riding Hood, The Woodsman is MTV noir dressed up as grimy realism. Bad enough that the movie panders to the popular but unfounded fear that child molesters lurk around every corner and in every family, a belief that has produced a generation of ludicrously overprotective parents and rendered countless well-motivated men paranoid about hugging someone else’s child. Worse yet, the filmmakers have the effrontery to present their movie as a tale of hard-won redemption. Let’s see now: In what is intended to be the movie’s topic-sentence climactic scene, Walter manages to control himself enough not to take advantage of a child he has followed into a park — then sends her home to her father, who, she has just told him, likes her to sit on his lap as he moves his legs in a funny way. That’s no hero. That’s a big, bad wolf.

THE WOODSMAN | Directed by NICOLE KASSELL | Written by STEPHEN FECHTER and KASSELL | Based on the play by FECHTER Produced by LEE DANIELS | Released by Newmarket Films | At the Sunset 5 and Mann Criterion


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