The Woodsman

By Peter Calder, Reviewed by Peter Calder

Herald rating: * * * *

The star who never really shone, Kevin Bacon has, in a patchy 50-film career, always hinted at a hidden power, like he's holding something in reserve.

His role in this film calls on all that reserve and then some. Audacious and nerve-racking, occasionally forced but mostly flat-out brilliant, the movie - incredibly a feature debut for director Kassell - casts the actor as Walter, a man just released from a 12-year prison term for molesting young girls.

The nature of his crime we don't learn until 20 minutes in, but it's impossible to assess the film without spoiling the surprise. In any case, one of the movie's richest pleasures is being in the know when most of the characters aren't; it lends an even greater emotional weight to Bacon's remarkable performance.

In an anonymous, rain-slicked town, Walter lands a job in a timber yard. He's actually a skilled carpenter and the job is an index of his lowly station in a life he's trying to reassemble. But his difficulties are less practical than existential: "When will I be normal?" he asks his condescending counsellor and we feel the anguish in the question like a stomach ache. Meanwhile he takes up with a feisty but careworn workmate, Vickie (Sedgwick, Bacon's real-life spouse).

And he's stalked by a sleazy cop (hip-hop artist Def, chillingly cruel) who is looking forward to Walter's relapse.

The film unfolds - in an eerie silence, mostly; the score is sparingly used - as a series of one-on-one encounters, an approach that further underlines Walter's isolation. Even when the screen is crowded - as in some key workplace scenes - Walter's on the outer. He longs to see his niece but it is forbidden, his brother-in-law (Bratt) drops by sometimes, out of a sense of awkward loyalty which is, as it turns out, very conditional.

Through this world, Bacon's Walter moves like a wraith. What's so masterly about the work is that it conveys the turbulent inner life of a man who is almost completely closed off. When he smiles and it instantly disappears, we see how much it costs him; when he flinches from a kiss, it has the force of an electric shock.

Kassell, who is smart enough to give the actor the time and space he needs, frames him mostly in medium or close-up shots so his torment fills the screen. It does not for a moment romanticise the character, but neither does it judge him. And in a climax as knuckle-whitening as that of any thriller, the film takes us to the edge of a bottomless abyss and dares us to peer over. It's a daring move in two senses of that word: it stares its subject matter unflinchingly in the face and it dares us to rise above our revulsion and appreciate the drama of a human being.

The film is not without its flaws. The script, co-written by Kassel and Steven Fechter from Fechter's play, shows its stage origins at times.

The image conjured by the title - which refers to the man who rescued Little Red Riding Hood from the Big Bad Wolf - is more than a little obvious. And a subplot involving a man in Walter's neighbourhood who is luring kids into his car is deeply problematic: assuming he is real and not simply an externalisation of Walter's own anxieties, his story comes to an abrupt and dramatically jarring end, quite at odds with the redemptive tone the film has been striving for.

But this is otherwise a deeply engrossing film, impressively scripted, shot, acted and edited. See it if you dare.

CAST: Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Benjamin Bratt, Mos Def, Hannah Pilkes
DIRECTOR: Nicole Kassell
RUNNING TIME: 87 minutes
RATING: R16, contains violence, sexual themes, and content that may disturb.
SCREENING: Bridgeway, Rialto, Village, Hoyts, Berkeley cinemas

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