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The Woodsman

A little too close for comfort

Timing is everything -- which is exactly why the release date of The Woodsman is so odd.

Every year, the major studios save anything sappy or uplifting specifically for this time of year, hoping that entire families will head to the theaters after Christmas dinner looking for something suitable for the children. The Woodsman, on the other hand, is the antithesis of family fare. It's strictly intended for adult audiences and doesn't contain an iota of holiday cheer. Perhaps, it is trying to capture the mature viewer who after weeks of being bombarded with John Tesh's latest rendition of Let It Snow is looking for anything that qualifies as a change of pace.

Kevin Bacon plays Walter, a convicted child molester, just released from prison. He has a dead-end job processing lumber at a factory and an apartment across the street from infinite temptation -- an elementary school. In between work and amusing himself by staring down at the playground, he sees a therapist.

It's difficult to fathom that two decades ago Bacon played dance machine Rem McCormack in Footloose. Always on the angular side, Bacon's face is downright gaunt here. His looks are well suited to the part, and he easily transforms into a man starved from contact and worn down by a dozen-year term in prison. It's fortunate that Bacon carries the part well because he is as taciturn a lead as one will ever find. He keeps his voice down and his rage in check, which is appropriate, because it would be superfluous to impart additional intensity to the character. Child molesters keep us on edge without extra effort.

Success of a dramatic film such as this normally depends on its ability to achieve realism. Without it, viewers never become invested in the characters and care nothing about the characters' eventual triumphs and failures. But unlike other dramas, The Woodsman has a point where becoming too realistic will have the reverse of the normal effect. Instead of drawing the viewer in, the repugnance of the child molester will turn them away.

The filmmakers, aware of this fact, make Walter easy to sympathize with -- for a sexual predator. He looks at every passing pre-adolescent with the longing eyes of a man who hasn't experienced sensual pleasure for a lifetime, but he tempers this with a sizable helping of self-hatred. And though he has trouble controlling his lusting, we're somewhat comforted by the fact he knows what he's doing is detestable. As odd as it sounds, this allows us to relate to his condition. All people possess compulsions, and not all of them are beneficial. Fortunately, they also aren't as destructive as molesting middle schoolers.

The rest of the characters aren't much different than what you would expect; Mos Def plays the distrustful cop watching over Walter, Benjamin Bratt the forgiving relative and Kyra Sedgwick the comforting love interest. All of them perform their roles effectively, but the camera focuses on Walter the majority of the time.

For most of the movie, The Woodsman succeeds because it skillfully maintains a balance between keeping Walter palatable and showing the awful truth of who he is. In the end though, the film succumbs under its own weight. Simultaneously, Walter's actions become more than one can comfortably stomach, yet still cannot push things far enough to remain faithful to Walter's character.

The Woodsman deserves admiration because it not only delves into a topic that few have the courage to, but also tries to humanize a character automatically considered a monster. Over time, scores of mediocre films have marginalized another groteseque character -- the serial killer -- to a point where it no longer strikes fear in us. We've become so conditioned to their actions that it has little effect on us. Now, even as serial killer films push the limits of acceptable violence their efficacy continually lessons.

However, while the murderer no longer scares us, the child molester certainly does. This is an uncomfortable movie to watch, and because of that few will (especially on Christmas). Certain realities we simply do not want to be captured on film -- and this may be one of them -- but it's a professional effort nonetheless.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5