Friday, May 20, 2005

The Woodsman

Continued from the review of Wimbledon

The Woodsman also features a caring, self-sacrificing woman. Kevin Bacon’s Walter has recently gotten out of prison, after serving twelve years as a convicted child molester. Only brother-in-law Carlos (Benjamin Bratt) continues to speak to him. Otherwise, Walter leads a lonely life consumed by his work at a lumberyard and his visits to his therapist. Enter a lovely but tough co-worker, Vicki, portrayed by Bacon’s real-life wife Kyra Sedgwick. Walter tells Vicki the truth, and she continues to date him.

This is a marvel of a film—brave and bold, refusing to offer easy answers or explanations. Walter continues to be attracted to adolescent girls, and he watches another molester casing the schoolyard outside his window without alerting any authorities. We do not have privileged access into Walter’s mind, though we do occasionally see lines he has written in his journal. Keeping us at a distance from its main character, the film nevertheless portrays Walter as sympathetic without making an apology.

The extent of Walter’s crime is left purposefully vague in Steven Fechter’s screenplay. Walter insists he never “hurt” any of the girls, by which I think he means the use of force or the causing of physical pain. Yet two scenes powerfully represent Walter’s pedophiliac actions. During a lovemaking session with Vicki, Walter cries, though Vicki does not see this. Later in the film when he asks a young girl to sit on his lap, his upset during the lovemaking session makes sense when one realizes Vicki was in the same bodily position of the young girl.

This young girl functions on another level, though, for she tells Walter that her Dad asks her to sit on his lap also. Walter asks her if she likes that, and she says, “no.” At this point, Walter realizes that her father has already molested her in the same way Walter was planning. Faced with the ugliness of his urges through the girl’s terribly sad and helpless reaction to the male desire that surrounds her, Walter is unable to continue with his plan to molest her.

The film doesn’t indicate that Walter is cured. Nor does his subsequent beating of the molester outside the school excuse any of his behavior. Rather, Walter evidences a man in serious crisis: unable to stop his feelings but desperately wanting to be “normal.” The script indicates that the roots of Walter’s illness lie in his relationship with his sister, yet the movie avoids the easy answer that Walter himself must have been abused in his youth. Pedophilia is a terrible crime perpetrated by deeply damaged people, and there does not seem to be any cure, through drugs or therapy. The film honestly portrays this horror.

Walter becomes more sympathetic through his relationship with Vicki. In part because she herself is sympathetic: tough, kind, and a victim of child abuse herself (all three of her older brothers, “in chronological order,” as she says). Is she attracted to Walter because he is a loner, like herself? Does she see that he is damaged and therefore wants to help him? Or is she trying to learn more about her own victimization by becoming close to a man who has victimized?

The fact that we know very little about Vicki’s own motivation highlights her perfunctory status. Her character is a means to an end—through her Walter finds a compassionate and forgiving soul to help him fight his criminal urges. Like Lizzie in Wimbledon, Vicki is less a character and more an appendage of a man: symbolizing the potential within him.

What Vicki’s particular needs and wishes are, we do not know. Nor do we need to know—I don’t feel a need to make any sort of overarching statement about the misogyny of Hollywood as evidenced through these characters. After all, once could make an entirely different film from Vicki’s perspective. Perhaps the real question should be, does Hollywood make films from Vicki, or some related character’s, perspective as well?
To be continued in my review of P.S.


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