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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