Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jan 12, 2005 11:48 am 
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Serious stuff

Once in a while a popular actor like Kevin Bacon does something challenging and fresh and difficult and it works. Let's face it: I'm a character actor, Kevin has said in interviews. Well, he's that and more, as the teenage girls who had to have a copy of Footloose for their personal video libraries could tell you. He's simply a modest actor with great range. He's had other difficult, challenging roles: Murder in the First (1995) is one of the more notably so. That was grueling to do. This one is more subtle. Most of what's going on with the main character in The Woodsman is internal. Bacon's job is not to make him into a monster, or too appealing: to keep us guessing, to show the complexity of the situation and the man.

Nicole Kassell, a new director, has chosen to make a movie about a convicted pedophile who's just been released on parole after more than a decade in jail.

This story is at the opposite extreme from the Italian production shot in Russia in English starring Malcolm MacDowell, David Grieco's Evilenko, which unfortunately has no US distribution. MacDowell's character was known as "the monster of Rostov" and was a truly horrific and repulsive serial killer, mostly of young boys and girls (MacDowell is powerful and terrifying in the role: it's one of his best performances ever), and the movie is about tracking him down. Walter (Bacon) has never "hurt" the young girls he molested, and he's "paid his debt to society." The question the movie poses is whether we can accept him as a person; whether he can accept himself; whether those around him can accept him (that may be the hardest task) -- and (most crucial if he's to remain on the outside) whether he can change, not revert to his old behavior.

Walter has been allowed to return to where he used to work, as a machinist, a job he's known to have done well. (And just as in the recent Christian Bale movie The Machinist, some unpleasantness is going to happen at the shop.) He has a place to live -- strangely, across from an elementary school; but that's the only landlord who would take him. Eventually, he has a girlfriend from work (real-life Bacon spouse Kyra Sedgwick), though that doesn't seem to go very well after a while. Walter is trying so hard to be "normal" and unobtrusive that he's imploding. He's watching himself, he's watching others, and they're watching him. There's no comfort zone. This makes the physical scenes in bed with Kyra raw and uneasy. His anger and frustration show in sessions with a therapist, and he's periodically tormented by a visiting cop, Lucas (Mos Def, in a fresh and original performance), and more gently teased by his brother-in-law, Carlos (Benjamin Bratt), who's friendly -- but only up to a point.

There are some moments in The Woodsman that aren't easy to watch. You realize that maybe nothing is harder for an ex-con than to live a "normal" life, doubly or quadruply so for a pedophile. Kassell's movie (which she collalaborated with Stephen Fechter in adapting from his play) avoids earnestness by always showing, never telling -- never explaining or lecturing, never giving things away too soon. The movie's pacing is successful in making the very little that happens for much of the time nonetheless interesting and suspenseful. When things do happen it's so quietly intense you practically hold your breath. This is serious stuff, and not much fun, but there's hope in it, and it takes us somewhere new. Perhaps the result will be too unspectacular for most tastes, but the movie stays in the mind, and Bacon's performance is as good as people are saying it is.

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