- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 6, 2005

“The Woodsman” could be the worst possible project to leave in the hands of a first-time director. Steven Fechter’s play about a pedophile’s halting re-entry into society demands both delicacy and moral firmness — traits rarely attributed to neophytes.

Thanks in large part to a career performance by star Kevin Bacon, rookie filmmaker Nicole Kassell defies conventional wisdom.

We root for her protagonist’s recovery and redemption without ever forgetting his crimes. Miss Kassell won’t let us.

With his boyishly tousled sandy hair, Mr. Bacon’s Walter looks almost childlike himself as he begins working at a Philadelphia lumberyard at the film’s start. Twelve years in prison for child molestation have left him speechless and withdrawn, like a sullen youngster.

He’s drawn out of his silence first by his therapist and later by a brassy co-worker named Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick, Mr. Bacon’s real-life spouse). She’s had her fair share of destructive beaus, we bet, but she sees a flicker of kindness in Walter.

Little could prepare her for learning Walter’s nightmarish past, a scene that rings as true as could be hoped. Yet after a protracted separation, she decides to keep seeing him.

She’s one of a few people, along with Walter’s brother-in-law (Benjamin Bratt), to give the ex-convict a second chance.

None of Walter’s co-workers are so forgiving, even if his boss (an effectively grim David Alan Grier) offers support.

Should Walter fail, a nosy sergeant (another sly turn by musician/actor Mos Def) will be there to ship him back to prison.

Mos Def’s character serves as our surrogate, and boy does the film need one. His sergeant is judgmental for all the right reasons — he’s seen one molester after another revert to form. The actor/musician mirrors our take on Walter, an amalgam of pity, confusion and rage.

“The Woodsman” never romanticizes Walter’s recovery. It’s a one day at a time process, but one without the emotional safety net of an Alcoholics Anonymous. Walter’s therapy sessions feel like fiery pokers jabbing his wounds, but he submits to whatever might make him feel what he calls “normal.”

He still battles his desires, spelled out during a lecherous loop through a shopping mall and, later, during a chilling exchange with a young bird-watcher. It’s as tense a scene as any we’re likely to see this year.

Mr. Bacon’s performance is the stuff of Oscar nominations, but the subject matter likely will scare away voters.

No matter. Consider the actor’s career resurrection on the heels of last year’s “Mystic River” a fait accompli.

Mr. Bacon’s Walter says little throughout “The Woodsman.” He doesn’t have to. The actor’s steel blue eyes, which once danced along to Kenny Loggins’ title track in “Footloose,” can convey 12 years of anguish in one tranquil close-up.

The film’s missteps are few and forgivable. We’re supposed to believe the only landlord willing to rent space to Walter owns property 320 feet away from a school. And why must Walter spend his free time watching a fellow pedophile casing that school?

“The Woodsman” reminds us that any soul, even the most troubled, might be worth saving. And any subject can be broached in film, so long as it’s treated with the same kind of integrity Miss Kassell displays here.

****

WHAT: “The Woodsman”

RATING: R (Partial nudity, harsh language, mature themes and violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Nicole Kassell. Screenplay by Nicole Kassell and Steven Fechter. Original score by Nathan Larson.

RUNNING TIME: 87 minutes

WEB SITE: https://www.thewoodsmanfilm.com/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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