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A man alone: Bacon in The Woodsman.

The Beast in Me
By Ann Morrow

The Woodsman
Directed by Nicole Kassell

With intense concentra- tion, Walter (Kevin Bacon) counts the steps between his run-down apartment and the elementary schoolyard across the street. It’s just under the required distance of 360-something feet. When he’s not at work at his new job in a lumberyard, where he keeps to himself, Walter likes to watch the schoolkids at play. He’s just been released from a 12-year prison sentence, and the location of his apartment is the central contrivance of The Woodsman, an unflinching look at one man’s rehabilitation. Walter is a pedophile, and it’s unbelievable that his therapist or his shrewd parole officer (Mos Def) would allow such close proximity to children. Despite this glaring lapse of reason, The Woodsman is at once admirable for its stringent objectivity, and repellent for its unblinking view of Walter’s psychological struggle.

“When will I be normal?” he asks his therapist, even though he’s tight-lipped and defensive during their sessions. At work, he attracts the attention of Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick), a hard-as-nails forklift driver who aggressively pursues him. “I’m not easily shocked,” she tells him while trying to get him to open up about himself. But when he tells her that he molested little girls, she’s not quite tough enough to accept it. At least not at first. But Vickie has her own, disturbingly complementary baggage, and she softens toward him after his crimes are exposed at the lumberyard—an incident that drives Walter deeper into denial of his guilt. While Vickie makes him feel human, the parole officer goes out of his way to make him feel like a monster. All Walter wants is to stay out of trouble and therefore stay out of jail. When he notices a man befriending young boys at the playground, he knows immediately that the man is a pedophile, and he observes the man’s progress with a mix of resentful envy and shame that he is too afraid of the police to alert them.

Directed and co-adapted from the play by first-time filmmaker Nicole Kassell, The Woodsman is carefully crafted, with a low-key grimness that hinges on Bacon’s tightly wound performance. But the plot relies too much on coincidence—such as the involvement of the bright and wary young girl that Walter stalks in the park—and not enough on the kind of informed reflection that the parole officer brings to his visits to Walter’s apartment (this is a starmaking performance from Def). The Woodsman is the kind of film that exists only to be thoughtfully yet deliberately provocative. But because of the officer’s dedicated watchfulness, we don’t have to fear that Walter will strike again, giving the film a safety net that amounts to a cop-out.

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