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Hardly a week goes by without television and newspaper reports on some community or another rising up to protest because a known sex offender, generally having served his term in prison and now released on parole, has taken up residence in their neighborhood. Pedophiles are the most despised of all; there seems to be a profound universal loathing for those who abuse children, who are seen as defenseless and innocent. The high incidence of recidivism among offenders only fuels the fears of parents.
So it is rare in our society to see anyone take a sympathetic look at an offender, to see him as a real person fighting his own demons and trying to have a life. A few years back L.I.E. featured Brian Cox in the role of John Harrigan, an ex-Marine with a taste for pubescent boys. Without for a minute condoning Harrigan’s sexual behavior, the film, nonetheless, developed a rounded and sympathetic character instead of portraying a demonized stereotype.
The Woodsman goes a step further, placing a 45 year old parolee, Walter (Kevin Bacon), front and center. Based on a play by Steven Fechter, who collaborated on the screenplay with director Nicole Kassell, the film is about Walter’s experiences after release from twelve years in prison. Unaccustomed to life on the outside and wary of his tentative position as a parolee, Walter is cautious, keeping to himself, putting on a cool, affectless front. Only with his therapist does he express some of his bottled up hostility.
The apartment he is placed in overlooks a school yard–as if the authorities deliberately wished to tempt him. But it meets the requirement of a minimum distance from the school and they’re willing to rent because the noise from the schoolyard makes it less than an ideal residence. Walter has a job in a lumberyard, where he keeps pretty much to himself. He meets Vicki (Kyra Sedgwick) and an affair ensues. But another employee whose advances he rebuffed is thus motivated to strike back; she learns of his record and not only harasses him, but passes the word around among other employees.
The only other friendly connection in Walter’s life is his brother-in-law, who visits the apartment, but his sister remains estranged, even to returning to Walter the wedding gift he gave them. A neighborhood cop, overbearing and officious, makes his hostility to Walter clear. (And when that changes, it is, ironically, for all the wrong reasons.) A trip to the mall, populated with girls wearing the miniskirts and other sexually alluring clothing favored by teenagers these days, makes it clear that Walter is plagued with inappropriate yearnings. And, in a quiet park, he comes close to repeating his offense.
The Woodsman tends to be somewhat schematic, raising its points about the difficulty an offender faces almost as if a checklist had been followed. The plotting is somewhat artificially set up so that hardly anyone has escaped the pain of abuse. But Kassell’s disciplined direction and sympathetic performances by Bacon and Sedgwick more than overcome the script’s didactic leanings and the film never slips into oversimplification. The moment in which Walter grasps the fallacy of his own initial defense ("I never hurt any of them.") is poignant and dramatically potent.
The Woodsman is a film that should be required viewing for all the NIMBY’s out there. It took real courage for Kassell and her actors to make such a film in this age of fervid Christian righteousness. When did they amend "Love the sinner, hate the sin." to "Love the sinner, hate the sin, but keep him out of my neighborhood."?