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Woodsman, The
(Reviewed December 24, 2004)
Rating: Not worthy of a star
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The most memorable aphorism from the movie Kinsey, apparently originally pronounced by the sex-researcher of the same name, could be said to sum up our post-Kinsey civilization in five words: "Everybody's sin is nobody's sin." Kinsey’s own purpose in collecting so many thousands of sexual histories and publishing a series of popular books designed to redefine what people think of as "normal" sexual behavior seems to have been to separate sex from sin entirely. The movie shows the professor’s encounter with a pedophile and genuine pervert whose hardly believable sexual excesses are perhaps meant to show that sexual sin is still possible, but Liam Neeson’s Kinsey is fascinated as well as appalled.

In The Woodsman, apparently somebody’s idea of a Christmas movie, Kevin Bacon plays a pedophile named Walter who has just been released from jail after serving a 12-year sentence for molesting little girls. Walter repeatedly asks his psychiatrist (Michael Shannon) with what I take to be intended as poignant longing, "When will I be normal?" But as both Kinsey and this movie show, he already is normal, at least in Hollywood’s terms. He would not be presented to us as the sympathetic character he is here — a sad ex-con trying to go straight and being persecuted by his work-mates when they find out his history — if the film-makers didn’t see him as being firmly on the continuum of normality which, for our Kinseyite culture, extends to all but the most extreme perversions, and perhaps even there. For once morality has been medicalized and the process of treating bad people as sick people is well underway, there is no obvious place for it to stop. We are not meant to approve of what Walter has done, but neither are we meant to see it as putting him beyond the pale of decent society. Sickness implies health just as perversion implies normality, and in both cases the therapeutic bias is always going to be in favor of expecting one to turn, eventually, into the other.

The new film, directed by Nicole Kassell who also co-wrote the screenplay with Steven Fechter, takes its title from a story told to Walter by Sergeant Lucas (Mos Def), a police detective of old-fashioned views on the whole sex-sin thing who doesn’t like Walter at all. "I don’t know why they keep letting guys like you out on the street," he says. "It just means we gotta catch you all over again." But at one point he sits down in a confiding way and asks Walter if he believes in fairy tales — like Little Red Riding Hood, for example. In that story, you may remember, after the girl is eaten by the wolf, a woodsman comes by and kills the wolf, cuts it open with his axe and releases her unharmed from the wolf’s stomach. Then the cop tells Walter of the case of Adel, age 7, who was raped and murdered and whose body, when they found it, was broken in half. "I saw 20 year vets," he continues, "hard guys. They cried. I cried." How could anyone see something like that, he wonders, and not be angry because "there are no f***ing woodsmen in this world" to rescue children from those who prey on them?

Now we know that Walter’s own wolvish tendencies are still alive and kicking, even though he claims never physically to have hurt any of his victims.We see him approach a little girl called Robin (Hannah Pilkes) in the park, though he backs off when he learns that she is probably already being abused by her father. Meanwhile, outside his window he can see someone he calls Candy (Kevin Rice) stalking the boys at a neighboring elementary school Even his new girlfriend, Vickie — played by Mr Bacon’s real-life wife, Kyra Sedgwick — tells him that she was abused by all three of her brothers as a child, though the brothers are now decent, upstanding members of the community. In other words, there’s a lot of it about. Walter in this context suddenly appears as nothing more than the unlucky one who got caught.

Once again, therefore, everybody’s sin is nobody’s sin. No matter how outré the behavior, someone else’s is always more so. At any rate a similar idea seems to have had a powerful effect on Walter. In learning to think of himself as not so very bad after all, he seems inspired by Sergeant Lucas’s story to convert from wolf to woodsman when he sees Candy enjoying what he supposes to be a regrettable success with one of the schoolboys. I don’t think the point of the film is to present us with an apologia for vigilante behavior, though it could certainly be taken that way. Walter’s violent catharsis seems to be intended, rather, to suggest that real or full normality is at last on the horizon for him — though presumably not for Candy —as the hope of a permanent relationship with Vickie as well as an eventual reconciliation with his only family, a sister who stopped speaking to him after his conviction, suffuses the final frames.

What, then, is the point of it all? Duh! To get Kevin Bacon, the hardest working man in the movie business, an Oscar. The part of Walter gives him a chance not only to star but to give us the gamut of emotion in the kind of "edgy" role the Academy tends to favor when it comes to handing out awards. And that, too, is proof — if any further proof were needed — that Hollywood sees the Walters of this world as being as deserving as any of us of a warm embrace and a big wet kiss from the great god of the post-Kinsey era, Normality. Those who enthusiastically applaud this notion, including many in the Academy, will presumably relish Mr Bacon’s performance.




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