The focus of The Woodsman is Kevin Bacon’s Walter, who has just been released from jail after a 12-year sentence. For child molestation. Arriving back in his hometown of Philadelphia, Walter could be reformed or he could simply be biding his time. Nicole Kassell’s drama, adapted from Steven Fechter’s play, does not give you the comfort of a verdict on the lead character, who has earnt his freedom but may well offend again. The story makes clear that trying to better yourself is not a guarantee of success, and it’s as deeply uncomfortable as Walter is in his everyday interactions.
Kevin Bacon isn’t merely good
Bacon is one of those actors who has never had a definitive role – if you say Footloose I’m going to have to slap you – and for the length of a long and often fine career he has had little seen lead roles and sturdy supporting parts; it’s Bacon’s police detective that helps make Sean Penn’s vengeful father so memorable in Mystic River. But this is a great performance, suffused with a dangerous mix of guilt and desire. Just the presence of a primary school down the block from his new apartment gets under Walter’s skin, and Bacon makes a complex tangle of emotions palpable.
Don’t forget the supporting cast
Gaining employment at a lumber mill, Walter begins a tentative relationship with a co-worker, Vicki, who is played by Bacon’s wife, Kyra Sedgwick. An actor who found her definitive role on television (with The Closer), Sedgwick finds a tender wariness in the role, while there is also a bitter, uneasy presence in Benjamin Bratt, as Walter’s brother-in-law, whose sympathy may be well a trap. Best of all is rapper and actor Mos Def, as a police detective named Lucas, who regards Walter with vehement detachment, as if he expects to arrest him in the coming weeks, let alone days.
It’s a film about rehabilitation
Can people change for the better? The Woodsman takes a figure we would read about in the news when they were sentenced and visits them at the end of that time in their life. It’s clear that Walter is guilty of heinous acts more than a decade prior, and wonders if he can avoid repeating the same terrible crimes. It also shows the reality of his situation, having to obscure his past from workmates and then suffering when a secretary casually reveals his secret because she feels slighted by him.
The director’s focus is clear
Kassell, who went on to work in episodic television herself, calmly holds the film on course even as Walter, increasingly under pressure, threatens to reoffend with a young girl he repeatedly encounters, Robin (Hannah Pilkes). It’s only when he’s at the very brink of transgressing that he sees the cycle of abuse through a victim’s eyes. Not every film would go so uncomfortably far to make that happen.
Michael Shannon: calming figure!
With his thousand yard stare and consumptive anger, Michael Shannon has been a lightning rod for malignant fury and untethered madness in films as diverse as Man of Steel and Take Shelter. Here, however, he unexpectedly plays Walter’s therapist, Rosen, the most levelheaded person in the entire movie. Relax, it’s Michael Shannon – that’s a weird concept.
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