The movie star who chose to play a child molester

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February 03, 2005|By Mary McNamara | Mary McNamara,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOLLYWOOD -- A lot of actors say they choose their roles based on their gut or their heart or their need to "stretch creatively." A lot of actors say they don't think about the big paycheck or the marketing or the awards (even as their agents kill themselves procuring the big paycheck, the marketing and the awards).

Kevin Bacon is more precise. He says he has taken three things off the list of his requirements for a role: the size of the role, the size of the movie and the size of the salary.

And for better or worse, he has the career to prove it -- a checkered filmography that has won Bacon accolades but no awards and leads people to regularly describe the actor with career-chilling terms such as "underappreciated talent," "always solid" and "an indispensable fixture of American cinema." A career that has led him, perhaps inevitably, to The Woodsman, a film that redefines the term "risky."

Since the beginning, Bacon's choices have been consistent only in their unpredictability.

None of his contemporaries would have shrugged off the smash-hit afterglow of Mystic River -- directed by Clint Eastwood! Script by Brian Helgeland! Cast chock-full of heavy hitters! -- by jumping straight into The Woodsman, a first-time feature director's film adapted from an unknown play about a child molester. From the molester's point of view.

If Mystic River, with its damaged adults and victimized children, is dark, The Woodsman dwells in the deep hole dug under dark. Bacon's Walter is a sullen, only marginally repentant pedophile attempting, after 12 years in prison, to re-enter a world that understandably does not want him around. Walter would like to be "normal" mostly because he thinks it would make his life a lot easier; it isn't until the end of the movie that he gives much thought to what he has done to his victims, any thought to the work he will have to do to achieve something approximating normal.

Not exactly Finding Neverland. Or The Aviator.

"I don't have a plan," Bacon says when asked where, exactly, The Woodsman fits in his career trajectory. "I've never had a plan. And if I'd had a plan, it would not have included The Woodsman.

"But sometimes," he adds, "you read a script and you hear the voice in your head. So that's what happened. I heard Walter's voice."

With Walter, Bacon, 46, is playing an unsympathetic lead completely without a net. As in Steven Fechter's play, the film offers no tidy explanation for Walter's compulsion -- no flashbacks to childhood abuse, no dysfunctional family or traumatic incident for the audience to hang on to. "I don't think it's as simple as that," Bacon said. "The decision was to not make it cut and dry -- if you say he was a sex offender because he was abused, that lets him off the hook somehow."

Bacon, Fechter and director Nicole Kassell refuse to let Walter off the hook at all. Instead, he dangles there, so close to falling that many people have watched certain scenes with their hands in front of their faces as if it were a horror film. Not that there are any images of molestation; the tension is all psychological. Bacon's performance is a crutch-free, utterly unsentimental attempt to show that there are no monsters, only people who have done monstrous things. And that it is very difficult, though not impossible, for such people to overcome their pathologies.

"I don't think he is going to `get cured,'" Bacon says of his character. "It's like an addiction, so it's a question of how he's going to deal with his addiction. Every day of his life. And he only realizes that toward the end."

Co-stars Kyra Sedgwick, Benjamin Bratt and Mos Def give the audience some emotional signposts, but the success of The Woodsman will depend entirely on audiences' reaction to Bacon's performance. Newmarket has gone with the Monster marketing model -- releasing it in a small number of theaters Christmas Eve, then going wider as, the filmmakers hope, word of mouth builds.

Many people, including Eastwood, were baffled when Bacon did not receive an Oscar nomination for Mystic River, and The Woodsman came out of Sundance with terms such as "performance of a lifetime" draped all over it. "Oh, I can't even think about that," says Bacon, with a sound somewhere between a snort and a laugh. "I have been down that road so many times, and I have never won anything."

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