There are some films that are difficult to watch because they're filled with intense, gory violence, and there are some films that are difficult to watch simply because of their subject matter. The Woodsman is one of the latter. Not only does the film involve one of the most difficult-to-watch subject matters - child molestation - but it also contains one of the most unsettling scenes in recent memory. It may be well crafted and expertly acted, but the fact remains there is a certain number of people who simply will not be able to watch the film purely on the fact that it breaches some very taboo subjects in a very realistic and painful manner. And, to be completely honest, I can't blame them.
First-time Director Nicole Kassell rarely pulls punches in The Woodsman as she tells the story of a convicted child molester, fresh out of jail, just trying to live his life, go to work, and be accepted as a changed man. What she lacks in experience, Kassell makes up for in smart casting nearly all the way around. Kevin Bacon gives a lifetime performance in a role that few actors would have even considered taking for fear of it absolutely killing their career. In every single frame of the film, Walter looks like a beaten man. His eyes are filled with anger and resentment at what he's done in the past, and his body language reveals a man that has spent a long time behind bars thinking about what he's done. He's suspicious of everyone (including himself) and rarely lets his guard down. The one time in the film that he truly does become vulnerable, it doesn't exactly end well. Bacon is able to capture the despair in his character in a remarkable way by allowing the audience to straddle a fine line between feeling sympathy and hatred. And a scene near the conclusion of the film solidifies this struggle, as it shows that Walter isn't quite so sure he doesn't hate himself.
Aside from Bacon we have two fine performances from Mos Def and Benjamin Bratt. Mos Def is slowly becoming an actor to watch, and his performance in The Woodsman shows that he's just get better with every role. His laid-back, suspicious detective is one of the highlights of the film. Bratt plays Walter's brother-in-law with a guarded sense of hope that Bacon's character is reformed. He desperately wants his wife to have a relationship with her brother, but is always wary that it may never actually happen. There's too much past and too many things have happened. He knows they can't go back and take it away. Even David Alan Grier's turn as Walter's boss shows the usually comedic actor's range.
Kassell's casting choices, however, are not all good. Eve's character seems a bit too heavy for her to handle. Someone a bit more experienced may have played it with more nuance and depth. Instead, Eve makes her character come across as a bit too one-note. And despite her proven acting abilities, the casting of Kyra Sedgwick (Bacon's real-life wife) does nothing to make the film any better. The fact that Bacon and Sedgwick share a bed in real-life not only makes it difficult to understand the obvious shorthand between them, but it also makes Sedgwick's character seem too simple in the film. We never see her character really struggle with her decision to be with Walter. Sure, she flinches a bit when he tells her of his past indiscretions, and they spend some time apart throughout the film, but it never really seems like she disapproves or even questions the fact that they're together. Had a different played the role, the immediate connection with Bacon would not have existed, making it much easier to struggle with his character's past.
The Woodsman, nevertheless, does have its merits. It's certainly a heart wrenching and difficult film, but a rewarding one if you can get through it. The chance to see what Walter has to go through upon his release from prison is incredibly interesting, and I assume it's probably very close to what it must be like for someone like that in real life. It raises several questions about reform, forgiveness, and society's willingness to look past someone's mistakes and judge them for who they have become. If the film is any indication of reality, then I don't expect many convicted sex offenders have it very easy (nor should they). The fact remains, however, that people do change and I truly believe that people can reform. The stigma attached with whatever they've done, on the other hand, will never go away and they must deal with those consequences for the rest of their life. Through the perspective of Walter, we get to see that these people have to deal with these consequences every single day, in the most subtle and obvious ways.
For a first-time director, Nicole Kassell should be applauded for making a film that provides an absolutely unflinching look at one of life's most difficult subjects. The Woodsman gives us a glimpse through the eyes of someone who made a terrible mistake at one time and, although they want to be forgiven and accepted by society, isn't quite sure that he can keep from making that same mistake again. Which all leads up to that very uncomfortable scene near the end of the film. The Woodsman may not be a popcorn movie or one that really cries out for repeat viewings, but if you can handle the subject matter, it's definitely a film worth seeing at least once.