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Little Birds

'The Woodsman' offers sympathy for a short eyes

By Richard von Busack

THE CHILD MOLESTER is the equivalent of Satan in the popular imagination. In America, which identifies itself as the innocent child among the elder nations, child molesting is a desecration of a symbol—a form of treason really. That's why dramas about child defilement are so unusually heavy. In Mystic River, Clint Eastwood makes the fact that Tim Robbins' character had been molested such a moral catastrophe that his ordeal could be summed up by Kafka's words: "It was as if the shame of it should outlive him." An American film that seeks sympathy for a molester is essentially radical, no matter how it disintegrates in the ending.

Nicole Kassell's The Woodsman stars Kevin Bacon as Walter, a recently released sex offender trying to fade into the scenery as he works at a Philadelphia lumberyard. During the day, he is harassed by a secretary (Eve) who keeps her eye on him. In the evening, a plainclothes cop named Sgt. Lucas (Mos Def) lets himself into Walter's apartment whenever he wants. Carlos (Benjamin Bratt), his brother-in-law, is the last piece of Walter's life before prison. Even this reluctant friendship becomes strained. Then Vickie comes into Walter's life. Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick, Bacon's wife) is a gnawed-upon woman who drives a truck. Sedgwick is more believably tough here than she was as the battered woman in Personal Velocity. Possibly Sedgwick's finest hour as an actress is Vickie's postcoital speech. In a few terse words, she sums up the divided feelings, the remoteness that never really leaves someone who's been through incest. In Vickie's arms, Walter faces the possibility of sloughing off his old life. But self-loathing—the sex addict's best friend—leads him back out into the city parks.

The locations are as honestly Filthadelphia as the chipped-painted apartment Walter lives in and the bottle of A-Treat Birch Beer he swills. Bacon's scenes of imploding solitude keep you watching. Seeing Walter resist a cop's probing with a cold wall of contempt, it seems that Bacon could make a fine Philip Marlowe. The movie goes wrong when it suggests that Walter can sense others with an unhealthy interest in children. It gets sillier when Walter begins watching a pervert he calls "Candy" trying to lure a boy into his car. He becomes a sports commentator, critiquing the pedophile's style.

Kassell and scriptwriter Steven Fetcher underline their symbolism as if with a yellow highlighter. The sparrows that Walter feeds show his gentleness, but also reference the little girls he stalks. The hardwood table that Carlos hauls over demonstrates Walter's soulful side before he was tossed in prison. Sniffing around a deserted schoolyard, Walter is startled when a red ball bounces out of nowhere. The referential ball rolls in from Fritz Lang's M. Charlie Chaplin once called M's star, Peter Lorre, "the best actor alive." Lorre made you sympathize and care for a child murderer, caught between the police and the underworld. M isn't a movie The Woodsman should have referenced, since it is far less brave and barbed. Thanks to Vickie, Walter is sexually realigned and ready to deliver vengeance on "Candy" with his fists. It is hard to buy this stuff in Mystic River, too. The fake upbeat ending compromises the film, raising the suspicion that what this all really about was finding a hot button topic to push.

The Woodsman (R; 87 min.), directed by Nicole Kassell, written by Steven Fetcher and Kassell, photographed by Zavier Pérez Grobet and starring Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, plays at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the December 29, 2004-January 4, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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