Bacon’s predator pained by hope for normalness

Of all the levels of human scum, child molester is undoubtedly near the bottom. The act's sheer monstrosity — desecration of youthful innocence, perpetuation against defenseless victims — is inherently obvious in the forefront of any humane mind. Is it a mental disease? A disorder brought about by mistreatment? Most have neither the time nor inclination to distinguish, rather, it is easier and safer to shun away the perpetrator and hush those distant, dark queries of the mind.

When hiding behind the label of a sex offender's "otherness" is so simple and securing, why take the time to try and see them as human?

This is precisely what makes Nicole Kassell's "The Woodsman" so difficult to watch, yet so painfully hard to turn away from. In her first film, the recent New York University film school grad presents a detached, methodical character study of the quintessential antihero stumbling down parole's seedy path of redemption.

Kassell doesn't ask that we like the recently released Walter (Kevin Bacon), or even that we sympathize with him, but instead presents the story of a haunted man yearning for some semblance of a normal life — while internal demons and societal expectations threaten to tear him apart.

Attempting to empathize with a man guilty of such heinous acts can be quite trying, especially for a mass audience overly versed in Hollywood's stock hero character canon; yet Bacon's performance is subtly powerful enough to garner compassion. A wonderfully nuanced actor who certainly is progressing with age, Bacon's troubled stare, jail-hardened tone, unfriendliness and occasional cutting sarcasm, all shield the delicate fragility and tenderness of a man who knows he could be destroyed by his own nature at any time. Walter's sexual compulsion is both innate and self-recognizably wrong. If he loses the battle with himself, he goes back to jail for the rest of his life.

Ironically, some of Bacon's most noteworthy roles have been in films centered upon sexual abuse: Both "Sleepers" and "Mystic River" are as equally dark and unsettling as "Woodsman," and the threesome threatens to tether Bacon's acting legacy to the stigma of "that creepy, sex abuse guy." Unwarranted or not, the creepy label is apt here, and that is all the more reason to appreciate Bacon as an actor. Immersed in a world of alienation, shunned by his family and co-workers, self-loathing and overtly abhorrent to others, Walter takes us to a place we normally and rather would not go — namely, the depths of human ugliness.

As the audience is somewhat grudgingly pulled into Walter's painful world, so too are the troubled characters around him. Bacon's real-life wife, Kyra Sedgwick, plays the ruggedly sexy forklift driver, Vickie, who is drawn to Walter after he lands a job at the lumberyard where she works. Driving a beat-up Bronco, chain-smoking and cussing, she is the epitome of individualistic feminism — evidenced by groaningly clichéd lines such as "maybe I'm not like other women." And while her instinctive urge to nurture the obviously tortured Walter is heartfelt, the story necessitates the audience to suspend a disbelief that she would stay with the man even after learning of his past — for some, this may be asking too much. Benjamin Bratt is first-rate as the sympathetic brother-in-law. Drinking beer and hanging out, he sheds light on Walter as a real, functioning, social being instead of just a closet monster.

The script plods at times — Mos Def's "Little Red Riding Hood" -themed narrative is sloppily forced to help explain the film's title, and Eve's character acts maliciously without motive or intent — and Kassell's repeated jump cuts give the direction a "did I mention I went to film school" feel. Yet the film's climax provides a profoundly unnerving scene of Walter coming face-to-face — indeed closer than the court mandated 300 foot restraint — with his most forbidden realm. Rarely has the darkness of perverted human desire been so starkly portrayed, and never before has Bacon's acting been so triumphant.

Grade: B

This article appeared in The Marquette Tribune on Feb. 17 2005.