Forest for the Trees


In `The Woodsman' Kevin Bacon sheds light on a dark subject


February 04, 2005|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC


** 1/2

The Woodsman clicks mostly when it depicts the brooding romance between a child molester (Kevin Bacon) just released from prison and the fierce, determined woman (Kyra Sedgwick) who breaks into his zone of privacy. In real life, Bacon and Sedgwick are husband and wife. Their scenes mark one of the rare times an off-screen couple's intimacy enriches on-screen passion.

Bacon plays a man petrified by his own impulses; emotionally and physically, he's blanched. Sedgwick plays a robust, chin-first woman who works with him at a lumberyard and senses that he has "a dark, deep secret." The atmosphere they brew is tense, heated and touching. They express a rapport and a rooting interest that help complete their characters. They overcome the contrivances of Bacon's living across the street from a grade school, running into a potential victim who causes him to view his awful acts from the perspective of the molested, and stumbling on the ideal target for his bottled-up rage and self-loathing.

Bacon and Sedgwick's combustible chemistry is so rich that it nearly backfires. When he reveals his secret to her and she reacts as if he's putting her on, they split up and the film deflates. Later, the couple reunites and pumps some air back into the movie.

At worst, The Woodsman becomes one more clinical variation on the Taxi Driver formula (the forthcoming The Assassination of Richard Nixon is another). A man's foul obsessions turn him into a time bomb. You check your watch and wait for him to explode.

The director/co-writer, Nicole Kassell, does an intelligent job of placing markers on a pervert's road to recovery - charting not just the growth of self-awareness, but also the getting of empathy. But I don't think you learn as much from her film about a molester's pathology or humanity than you did from Peter Lorre's confession of being a compulsive child murderer in Fritz Lang's M (1931), which managed to be a first-rate policier and underworld thriller.

Luckily, up and down the line, the performers in The Woodsman are so committed that some complexities spill out. Bacon elicits sympathy when he declares that he's trying to erase his sexual feelings for 10- to-12-year-old girls. But you know he's still dangerous when he tells Sedgwick that he never hurt any of his victims.

Mos Def plays the policeman who keeps him under surveillance. He gives no quarter to this maligned ex-con: He treats him like dirt and berates him as a monster. But Mos Def imbues his dedicated cop with a killing, almost Dostoyevskian consciousness of vice and evil - he'd be superb in an American urban update of Crime and Punishment. When Mos Def verbally flays him, Bacon gets this beat-up little-boy look that at first seems infinitely sad. Then you learn that Bacon takes on the character of a sensitive 12-year-old whenever he enters his molester mode.

Bacon, like Kurt Russell, creates diverse characters with so little preening or fuss that he may never get the credit he deserves. In The Woodsman, he notches several astounding feats without breaking a sweat. He conveys a guilty man's super-sensitivity to his and others' errant impulses; the odd erotic focus of a fellow who yearns for a woman yet finds pleasing her in part an act of will; and the emergence of maturity in a middle-aged man.

But Bacon's imploding performance wouldn't connect to the audience without Sedgwick's wholehearted, authentic extroversion. She swaggers through the lumberyard with a free-swinging blend of cantankerous humor and aloofness that registers to most men as a putdown or a dare. She can't tell how it affects Bacon. She charges right at him to reach him.

The Woodsman's revelations are too programmed to strike home as epiphanies. But director Cassell handles the lead relationship just right. Sedgwick is no figure of redemption. She's nothing less - and nothing more - than the right gal at the right time. In movies (as in life), that beats being an angel.

The Woodsman

Starring Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Mos Def

Directed by Nicole Kassell

Released by Newmarket

Rated R

Time 87 minutes

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