“One of the reasons I wanted to make this film,” says Nicole Kassell while watching The Woodsman for her DVD commentary track, “was that these people are so often depicted as sheer monster, or the label of their crime. And we just really wanted to say, ‘This is a human being and let’s walk in his shoes for a while.'” She says it simply, but it’s an extraordinary risk. No one wants to be walking in a pedophile’s shoes, for any while.
As Kassell notes, the four minutes worth of credits images (which she describes as “heavily influenced by The Getaway by Sam Peckinpah”) reveals much about Walter (Kevin Bacon), as he rides a bus from prison to Philadelphia, but also hold back. Glimpses of files and computer screens show that he’s been in prison for 12 years, that he’s out on parole, that he’s starting a new job at a lumberyard. What little sky appears during these introductory moments is shot through windows — the bus, his small apartment, the lumberyard warehouse — where he runs a circular saw, his eyes disappeared inside his goggles and his slight form receding into his baggy coveralls.
A craftsman and a careful man with little to say and, it seems, a lot on his mind, Walter keeps his head down, seeking routine. His isolation in the lunchroom looks partly a function of his timidity, and partly a set-up for later tensions. When approached by the yard’s receptionist, Mary-Kay (Eve), he retreats; just days later, she spots him trying to speak with a coworker, Vicki (Kyra Sedgwick). He’s either worried or impressed by her interactions with another guy on the yard (Kassell: “There’s Kyra Sedgwick beating the shit out of Carlos Leon. I love this scene”). In either case, it appears to Mary-Kay that he’s rebuffed her, but is interested in the white woman.
But Walter’s choices are more complicated than they appear. As he reveals to Vicki, with whom he begins an affair, he’s been in prison for “molesting little girls” (“It’s not what you think,” he says, “I never hurt them,” revealing that he hasn’t come to terms with what “hurt” means). Vicki’s first reaction approximates the presumed viewer’s — she’s shocked and repulsed, and then attempts to reconcile, to make sense of her attraction to this man whom she would reject outright if she hadn’t first experienced his gentleness and kindness. The fact that he’s trying to stay undercover, as it were, becomes poignant in this relationship as well: after the passage of Megan’s Law, Kassell points out, offenders’ efforts to start again are severely curtailed. While she sympathizes with those who want to “know,” she also sees the complications in the process for offenders.
Other devices to get inside Walter’s thinking are also conventional, but also delicately handled — by performers as well as the cinematographer Xavier Perez Grobet. He sees a court-appointed shrink who advises him to keep a journal; these entries are banal but also revealing, as he’s turned into an observer of the very behavior of which he’s been accused (as Kassell points out, the journal might also serve as “evidence” should anything go wrong, and so he’s understandably reluctant to spill his guts all over its pages). The only apartment Walter can find to rent looks out on an elementary school yard; out his window he sees another molester he names “Candy,” for his all too familiar strategy to win his victims’ trust. (The fact that Candy approaches young boys and not girls, like Walter, might make him a “worse offender” along some traditional and disturbing continuum of evil/affliction; the film doesn’t dig into this background; Kassell notes this, insisting the point was not comparison, but coverage — molesters come in all shapes).
Walter’s narration of Candy’s activities at once shows that he understands, despises, and feels vaguely intrigued by the impulses he sees on the sidewalk before him. As Candy’s actions escalate, so does Walter’s own desire — mulling over Candy’s show, he spots a girl on the bus, and goes so far as to talk with her, even though he knows it’s a potentially dire mistake.
The tension of Walter’s battle with himself (projected onto Candy) is exacerbated by visits from two men, who are as much emblems as characters. The first is his brother-in-law Carlos (Benjamin Bratt, of whom Kassell says, the script “really scared him and disturbed him, and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to be involved with the film,” which only makes her admire his work more). He works hard not to judge Walter, because, he says, “I remember when they gave Annette shit because she married the little brown-skinned boy from down the street — except her brother.” Though Carlos tries to help Walter reintegrate, as much as that might be imaginable, Walter’s own lack of understanding leads to an eventual clash, and still more forgiveness, as Carlos emerges as the most generous-minded character in sight.
Walter is also visited occasionally by a police sergeant, Lucas (the terrifically low-key Mos Def, of whom Kassell says, “I’m in love with this performance and was grateful to have him play the part”). Essentially serving as Walter’s conscience, Lucas rattles him by snooping around his apartment and suggesting that he knows every time he gets on that bus or speaks to the girl. Their interactions, in Walter’s apartment, are not always clearly marked, as to whether Lucas even exists; as Kassell suggests, “We’re starting to question if Walter’s perception of reality is real or not.” As much as Walter appears willing to submit to such scrutiny — part of his ongoing, deserved punishment — he also resents that his life will never be “normal.”
But for Walter, there can be no “normal,” given his history or the community that frames it and judges him. Co-written by Kassell and Steven Fechter, and based on his play, The Woodsman is an extremely focused, somewhat contrived, and wholly admirable consideration of Walter’s efforts to rejoin a culture that has flat-out rejected him, even as it has, in part, helped to shape his desires. Kassell underlines that the film does not try to show “why Walter became a child molester. There is no one reason why.”
Walter’s eventual meeting with the girl Robin (who watches birds and wears a red coat, derived, Kaseell says, from Little Red Riding Hood) leads to a self-confrontation (literalized later in an encounter with Candy). If it turns, in the end, to an ineffective bit of melodrama to resolve at least some of its questions, it also asks you to rethink your own presumptions. Given the onslaught of merciless representations of “child molesters” and the phenomenon of child abuse on television and in other visual media, this effort to understand the offender as human rather than monstrous seems an incredible small step. If the film doesn’t quite take up the social or political contexts for Walter’s illness (a point of description he appears to accept, even though it doesn’t quite allow him to alleviate his sense of guilt), it does push you to ponder the possibilities.
Surely, the subject matter is not in itself unusual now, given the weekly considerations of child abuses and various sexual desires on tv series like Law & Order: SVU, Medium, or The Shield. At the same time, the film works hard not to pathologize Walter out of hand, but to explore his “good” efforts to recover some semblance of self-respect, this most obviously in the mutual, adult sexual relationship with Vicki, whose revelation of her own past goes some distance toward explaining her open-mindedness as well as her sensitivity.
Perhaps more interestingly, if less clearly worked out, is the film’s situation of Walter in a community of conventionally marginal figures, from his employer Bob (David Alan Grier) and the forklift-driving Vicki, to Carlos, Mary-Kay, and Lucas. Their differences from Walter and from one another make his world not quite movie-normal, but more real-lifeish normal, folks trying to make their way in a hostile, ever gray world, where diurnal judgments are not just “black and white.”