The Woodsman, 87 mins,
rated MA, due to open in cinemas on 14 April 2005.
(This review originally appeared in the NSW Law Society Journal).
In the March 2004 issue of the Law Society Journal, my review of the
documentary film Capturing the Friedmans (Jarecki, 2003) opened with
the question “What are the rights of a paedophile?”
The same issue arose in Australia recently, as the Sydney Morning
Herald reported on 2 February 2005 (page 2).
Queensland police were forced to protect a
notorious pedophile from an angry mob who demanded he leave their town.
Dennis Ferguson, 56, who served a 14-year term for raping three
children, moved to Murgon, 300 kilometres north of Brisbane, last
weekend. Police were forced to intervene after a group of up to 80
residents protested outside Mr Ferguson’s house yesterday. After being
evicted by his landlord, he was escorted by police to the local
The issue is explored again in The
Woodsman, a new fictional feature film starring the talented
Kevin Bacon. We last saw Bacon quietly stealing scenes from Sean Penn
and Tim Robbins in Mystic River (Clint Eastwood, 2003). He is
centre-stage here, playing opposite his real-life-wife Kyra Sedgwick,
and it is probably the performance of a lifetime.
Bacon plays Walter, a convicted paedophile. As the film opens he has
been paroled after spending 12 years in prison for crimes unspecified.
The Woodsman is about his attempt to rejoin society, and to deal with
his demons. Will he make the most of this second chance, or will he
falter and offend again? And when, as he asks himself over and over,
will he be “normal”?
First-time director Nicole Kassell also co-wrote the screenplay, which
is based on a play by her co-writer, Steven Fechter. The screenplay,
the direction and most of the performances are economical and admirably
restrained. Bacon’s performance is masterfully underplayed. The film
never crosses the line into the lurid or the exploitive. Scenes
involving young children are never overtly sexual.
There are a few false notes, however: Walter gets a job and an
apartment straight away, and his apartment is rather implausibly right
opposite a school playground. Walter also acquires an attractive
girlfriend rather too easily. Symbolism is occasionally laid on with a
trowel. And there is a nasty character at Walter’s workplace, who
doesn’t quite ring true. But these are fairly minor quibbles in the
overall scheme, especially given the film’s sensitivity and deep
humanity in the face of very difficult issues.
The director and writer present the issues to us unsimplified. Human
sexuality is complicated, and the shadow of sexual abuse is in many
people’s pasts. The ways in which people derive sexual pleasure can be
many and varied, and can stem from many different influences. Can
anyone say with absolute certainty what is “normal”?
The other fascinating aspect of the film is its examination of Walter’s
“rights”. Has he the right to any privacy? Do his co-workers have the
right to know what he did? Should he be allowed to live near a school?
Is it OK for the police to keep an eye on him? Enter and search his
apartment without a warrant? Harass him? Insult him? Has he paid his
debt to society, or will he never be able to atone for his horrible
But be warned: there are a few very disturbing scenes. One involves a
young girl, played by a terrific little actor named Hannah Pilkes, whom
Walter “befriends”. Her conversation in the park with Walter will break
your heart. And a number of scenes involving a character nicknamed
“Candy” raise the disturbing question of whether there can be such a
thing as a “good” and a “bad” paedophile.
Is it hard to accept the idea of Kevin Bacon as a child molester?
Should the director have cast someone less likeable? I don’t believe
so. Co-incidentally, on 10 November 2004, two days after I saw The
Woodsman, ABC TV’s The 7.30 Report had a story about a rehabilitation
program for sex offenders. Karen Owen, the manager of the program, said
that sex offenders may be “…the man next to you on the bus. They have
families and children…they live next door…”. And as psychologist Carla
Lopez chillingly remarked, “Monsters don’t get close to kids: nice guys