Woodsman (2004)

“Birds of a feather”


Nicole Kassell’s film adaptation of a stage play becomes a brave experimental movie, its character content enough to make many a moviegoer squeamish about going and to decide finally against the suffering of watching.  Strange how people will flock to see Mel Gibson’s Christ being sadistically flayed, a focus on torture and all that is morbid in the religious story and yet many will not tolerate suffering through the persecuted life of an ex-con who has committed taboo crimes.  “I don’t like films about that subject matter,” a film aficionado responded when I suggested he view The Woodsman.  Another who had seen the film would not join our film club group to see it a second time.  So gloomy and plodding and serious was the first impression on her that it would not be a better story the second time.   Others, during the Tacoma Film Club’s discussion night, felt the audience was being manipulated, subjected to propaganda, made to sympathize with a no-account human being in Kevin Bacon’s somber characterization of Walter the Woodsman.  “How can people swallow that fairy tale of the truly wicked wolf transmogrified into the humble canine, man’s best  companion?”


Consider the poem “The Old Wolf” by Rudolf Otto Wiemer (1976)


The wolf, now piously old and good,

When again he met Red Riding Hood

Spoke: Incredible, my dear child,

What kinds of stories are spread--they’re wild.


As though there were, so the lie is told,

a dark murder affair of old.

The Brothers Grimm are the ones to blame,

Confess!  It wasn’t half as bad as they claim.


Little Red Riding Hood saw the wolf’s bite

And stammered: “You’re right, quite right!”

Whereupon the wolf, heaving many a sigh,

Gave kind regards to Granny and waved good-bye.

                (In Jack Zipes’ Fairy Tales and the art of subversion (New York: Wildman Press, 1983), p. 45.)


Is it possible for the Big Bad Wolf, before he grows old, to reform himself.  For what exactly must he reform?  Did the Woodsman really save the day?


            Evidently there were lots of reasons to be skeptical of the purpose of Kassell’s Woodsman, the director’s major film debut.   Also what about Kevin Bacon’s dedication to the film as executive producer?  He offers himself as the major star draw bound to encourage attendance?  And, no doubt about it, Bacon’s role is a five-star performance.  So, why make a film few people would desire to see?  Why does the director start out her career with a most difficult subject matter?  Does her story and characterization sentimentalize a dead-serious addiction to abusing people in the name of pleasure?  Can we really trust the lasting value of psychological remorse and reform in a determinedly pathological character?   Kyra Sedgewick, Bacon’s real-life wife, plays Vickie, the heist-operating co-worker who befriends the lonely woodmill cutter, Walter.  She, too, is has rehearsed her role to dramatic perfection.  Having endured abominable abuse herself in her family life, Vickie’s affect on Walter, and vice-versa, makes one wonder if two negatives in a tenuous harmony can emerge a positive whole.  How, if the most experts fail to normalize, neutralize and desensitize the sex-criminal’s nature, can a sensual tomboy work a miracle transformation, changing the hawk into the turtle dove?  Social psychologists would have a field-day with the facts and fictions at work in  this dramatic psychodrama.

            Besides Woodsman’s steely subject matter, a number of other films have appeared of late which attempt to arouse interest in formidable controversial public issues: Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, 2004) about an abortionist in Britain’s post-war 1950s;  The Sea Inside (Alejandro Amenàbar, 2004) about assisted suicide in Catholic Spain; The Machinist (Brad Anderson, 2004) about an emaciated insomniac (Christian Bale) suffering a depressive life of psychopathic masochism.  One might class them as psycho-social commentaries.  The Woodsman fits very nicely within this film genre about social and psychological issues.  The main difference between its issue and that of the other three is rooted in the dreadful cause of the Woodsman’s troubled (or, if you wish, wicked) heart: in none of the others did the anti-heroic protagonist act in order to deliberately harm or injure another human being.  This cause-effect conflict in a conceivably incorrigible man makes Woodsman’s Walter a difficult person to sympathize with, and the filmmaker does perhaps seduce through film illusion some tender hearts in the audience to see Walter’s warped soul gradually molded into a remediable spirit.  I must confess I felt sympathy for the character’s constant torment and suffering, but he was not trustworthy or forgivable, for the daimonic urge was still roiling within him at the film’s end.  How much has Kevin Bacon’s dramatic portrayal seduced us into believing the best in Walter and his desire to reform? How much of the illusion of progressive reform does the filmmaker want us to believe?

            One more question: What does one gain by taking a kinder view of a pedophile?  All these questions take us into difficult emotional territory which does not usually attract the perturbed viewer to enjoy such sentimentality; therefore, Woodsman’s mood and theme arouse caution, warning the viewer to stay back and watch this, and don’t enter too far in this nightmare or grim fairy tale.


            The fairy tale at the heart of The Woodsman is some version of Grimms’ Little Red Riding Hood, mostly the tail end in which the woodsman’s character appears quite suddenly as a brutal savior, chopping open the wolf to allow dear Grandmother and Little Red to pop out fully intact.  Then he vanishes.  When the probation policeman (Mos Def in a dead-serious acting mode) visits to provoke or antagonize Walter, he recounts for Walter the horror and disgust he’s experienced in finding the innocent red riding hoods in the woods swallowed and spat up by the big bad wolves.  When such an allusion is brought up as a symbolic tale, it is meant to resonate in the viewer who might consider other levels of meaning and be alert to related symbolism throughout the narrative.  Obviously the little girl Walter stalks is red jacketed and seeks the wooded haunts of parks where she bird-watches.  However, the end of an allusive story should also remind one of the whole narrative, at least it was so in the days of the Boomer generation who had been brought up on Mother Goose and Grimms’ fairy tales.  Not many today will perhaps remember the harsher 19th and 18th century versions of folk tales since a politically-correct bowdlerizing of them has occurred in recent generations of children’s books.  Nevertheless, the interesting openings of the old stories have a loving mother bundling a basket of goodies for her sweet daughter to take through the woods to her ill grandmother’s cottage.  The mother caurions the girl to stay on the path, not because of getting lost or meeting with danger, but because she might trip and spill the goods which Grandmother needs in order to get well.  The concern is for the welfare of the grandmother not for the safety of the daughter.                       

            The analogous background frame that jives with Little Red Riding Hood’s life can be found fore and aft around the parole officer’s narration.  Walter’s sister, whose incestuous childhood with her slightly older brother (two-years difference) has scarred her existence, is opposed to ever allowing Walter to meet with her 12-year-old daughter or visit her home when the daughter is present.  Though a background figure, she is the modern experienced mother, ultra-concerned for her child’s safety.  Walter’s brother-in-law (Benjamin Bratt) visits Walter’s place to share some fellow feeling, since Walter had been simpatico with the Hispanic youth when he courted his sister.  However, the brother-in-law, a self-respecting macho man, still expresses society’s disgust with Walter’s crimes and, though friendly up front, he seems to taunt with smirks and snide language as he gives promises of Walter’s visiting his niece and then later takes them away.  On one occasion his sister sends back to Walter the fine, decorative cherrywood table he woodworked as a wedding gift for the couple.  This is taken as a sharp insult by Walter, for she now has put her brother at a distance, fearful for her child to meet the wolf and rejecting even his kind woodsman nature.  This is the modern reality of the fairy tale, the cautionary theme the old story may have contained as a moral.


            The savior Woodsman and the Wolf are twinned in Walter.  First he stalks and seduces his Riding Hood, 11-year-old Robin (beautifully and maturely acted by Hannah Pilkes).  In the park, Walter reveals his super-cool, ingratiating personality, the wily, manipulative techniques that he practiced in years gone by.  In confidence with the juvenile, Walter learns the innocent Robin is already fully-fledged, having been initiated into the mystery of incestuous erotics by her own father.  In a family where the father molests a child, it is usually because of a benighted mother’s denial that such behavior persists.  Here the Grimms’ neurotically innocent mother is brought to mind.  One might ask: “What mother would allow her child to go birdwatching alone in the wooded park?” 

            Through the girl’s confession of her father’s abuse, Walter has an opportunity to recognize himself as the alter-ego of the disgusting father.  Walter shows dawning awareness of the pathetic act he might have perpetrated upon the lovely, sad child.  He at last refuses to accept her affection.  Though it is hardly credible in psychological terms if Walter was in his limbic stalker mode, this epiphanic moment presents the high drama of Walter’s self-identification and potential turn-around.  Well, movies are, after all, modern fairy tales, often with romanticized, redemptive themes that audiences used to desire as essential and which mature filmgoers today are less likely to demand.


            Later, upon his return past the school, where he has observed a suspicious young man tantalizing boys with candy and seducing one or another into his car for rides,  Walter meets the man dropping off a young boy.  In a furious rage he physically accosts the alleged pederast and beats him to a pulp.   In a rage meant symbolically to represent his self-punishment, Walter cannot hold back raining blows upon his second alter-ego.  In one flash-cut, to emphasize this identification, the culprit’s face is superimposed with Walter’s beaten visage.  This scene was intended as partial remorse for Walter’s pedophilic nature and added another tick to the possibility of Walter’s peripeteia.  This scapegoating, as I viewed it, has become quite clichéd and painted Walter with a less complex characterization than I had come to expect in the dénouement.  The last movie I can recall of recent times where the guilty protagonist beats up a scapegoat, with a similar vengeance and tragic recognition was Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (2003).  Sean Penn kills his boyhood friend, maimed long ago by cruel pederasty at an impressionable age, thinking him the murderer of his daughter.  In fact, Penn as father was more responsible for her death by his careless, lenient parenting; the friend was discovered to be wholly innocent, having acted as the girl’s avenger.   Another film, somewhat older, was The Limey (Steven Soderbergh, 1999).  There Terence Stamp smashes in Peter Fonda’s face to punish the boyfriend for the death of his daughter.  In reality, the ex-con father’s own behavior was much more at fault in his daughter’s waywardness than the boyfriend’s.  This is painful machismo and should now be considered an outworn cliché.

            Nicole Kassell and her co-writer Steven Fechter, playwright of the original story, do not actually let Walter off so easily.  Although he is befriended by Vickie and eventually taken in by her for protection and nurture, the gloomy, gray skies of the city that hang as a pall over the action do not brighten at film’s end.  After being rebuffed by his sister when they finally did meet, life for brooding Walter is not good; it’s merely OK.  What more should he expect? In a final scene as the camera sweeps upward, a flock of birds wings away into the gloom indicating the common eternal pattern of nature persists.


            For all the illusive trickery of storytelling in The Woodsman, there is a perceptive subtle art at work in imagery that evokes less suspicion of deception and hearkens after the true accounts of casework on paraphiliac personalities.  For one, the symbolism of birds and feathers and hair occur in a deliberately repeated pattern that follows known research on what the triggers of arousal might be in Walter’s sensual nature.  If one watches carefully the erotic bedroom scenes, Walter is fascinated by Vickie’s rich locks.  He smothers his face in her hair.  In a later amorous scene in which Vickie is brought to sit backwards onto Walter’s lap, the man is sensually transported, adoring the scent and texture of her hair.  Vickie’s face questions what is happening.  It was, in his admission of his relationship with his young sister, the girls’ luxurious and fragrant hair that was the early incitement of sensuality and pleasure.  When Walter is attracted in public to young girls, it is the banks of thick, long, fragrant hair cascading down the girls’ shoulders and backs that seduce him into his limbic shark cruising.  Thus hair is the erotic trigger by which Walter metamorphoses into the Wolf.  The hair details are acutely imposed in those scenes of arousal and stalking.      

            Robin’s hair is also thick, long and attractive, which Walter has time to adore from the seat behind her on the city bus.  When he tracks her into the park, Robin also takes askance peeks at Walter, not particularly alarmed by his presence.  For much of the 20th century decent people doubted the prevalence of the family incest myth.  By the end of the century, we became much more aware of the domestic and incestuous violence in families, both those in poverty and in affluent classes.  Therefore, in The Woodsman, it makes perfect sense that one initiated and experienced to wayward sexuality would show less fear of engagement with an ostensibly kind man who shows interest in her hobby.  Perhaps there is also an intuitive attraction that paraphiliacs have for their quarry.

            Thus the bird imagery takes on meaning.  Hair is attractive; feathers are birds’ hair.  Thus, in nature, like seeks like; birds of a feather flock together.  Vickie has that extra-sensory nature to sniff out a creature carrying a stigma similar to her own.  A nice touch -- she even had a feather tattoo decorating her wrist. Vickie was molested by her siblings; Robin by her father.  They have much in common.  Walter’s first act in his apartment is to hook a bird feeder outside his front window.  He knows the schoolyard snoop is after prey.  The children the “Candyman” pedophile accosts, Walter describes in his journal as cherubs -- those little chubby, winged creatures of medieval painting.  How acutely the filmmaker has regarded these fine details is a mark of her expertise.

            One symbolic touch that derives from film imagery of years gone by is the appearance of a large red rubber ball.  The distribution poster depicts Walter in a woods area, looking down at a red ball he holds in both hands.  This emblem may be seen as a relic from Fritz Lang’s M (1931), the ball which rolled down the cobblestone alley after Peter Lorre had committed his murder of a little child.  In The Woodsman, the ball appears in a series of surrealistic dream moments: once it rolls mysteriously down the school walkway when no children are in sight; another time it sits before a doorway in his apartment, as a young girl’s apparition vanishes into the bedroom.  The implication of the images is clear, but the degree of danger is much more ambiguous in the modern film than in M; here it’s potential danger, symbolic of Walter’s anguished desire, but in M it symbolized the perpetrated crime.          


            Finally, is it convincing that Walter can change his intrinsic wolfish habits?   The talk-therapy psychologist he had to see for treatment did not elicit my confidence that he could neutralize Walter’s erotic triggers.  The desaggressivist therapy in the DSMIV (revised ed.) intended to neutralize the paraphiliac’s urges looks pretty strange to me, sort of like Kubrick’s deprogramming treatment of Malcolm McDowell’s wicked droog in Clockwork Orange.  The results are probably very peculiar.


            Once all the questions are asked, no matter the paleness or solidity of the answers, one thing remains true to good art -- it encourages inquiry, debate, dispute.  The taboo subject matter of Woodsman is too relevant to our age that we should just shun artistic representations of it or denigrate them as falacious or romanticized fairy-tales in very poor taste.  How important the theme of pedophilia is in fine literature and film can be understood by the high standing of Nabakov’s Lolita and the two films made of the story:  Kubrick’s 1962 version, starring James Mason as the somewhat tame and comical Humbert Humbert and Sue Lyons as a quite adolescent Lolita; Adrian Lyne’s 1997 version with Jeremy Irons’ much more sinister pervert, lusting after wilfully seductive Dominique Swain’s child-like Lolita.   Recently I saw Todd Solondz’s Happiness which presents a truly horrific portrayal of a pederast father (Dylan Baker) among a repertory of sad characters representative of a range of weird paraphilias in our “normal” affluent, workaday society.  If American Beauty can be remembered as a classy Academy Award winner with all its quirky unbelievable characters, I’m sure there is a place in much higher standings for Nicole Kassell’s Woodsman.  Why don’t they offer an Oscar category for the best difficult art film?  My feeling is, competition though it might have had, The Woodsman would have won hands down.  


I gave this movie a rating of 4 stars.
David R. Gilmour