Damon Dash produces and Kevin Bacon stars in this sensitive and intelligent story of a recovering paedophile.

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Score 4

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The Woodsman
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Sure to send the usual self-appointed moral guardians into screaming apoplexy, this daring, feature debut about a recovering paedophile adopts a sensitive and intelligent approach to its provocative subject matter.

Produced by hip hop entrepreneur Damon Dash, this finds Kevin Bacon plays Walter, returning to his Philadelphia hometown after spending 12 years in prison for molesting young girls and trying to restore some semblance of normality to his life: “Normal is when I can be near a girl, talk to a girl, and not think about…” Most of his family have shut him out. He’s got a detective (Mos Def, sly and shifty) on his back, just waiting for him to re-offend: “I don’t know why they keep letting freaks like you out – it only means we have to catch you again.” Matters aren’t helped much when he finds he can only get lodgings over the road from a grade school, and his colleagues at the local lumber mill respond aggressively when his past leaks out. Pushed from all sides, you wonder whether he’ll cave in. Only Vickie (Sedgewick, Bacon’s real life wife), a co-worker at the lumber mill who becomes his lover, offers any understanding: she was abused by her three elder brothers “in chronological order.”

Adapted from Steven Fechter’s play, Kassell’s sombre, minimalist film inevitably makes for difficult viewing. How much sympathy are we meant to have for a character responsible for such horrific crimes? But Kassell is less interested in why he committed those offences, or drawing you towards making moral judgements, but whether Walter is capable of changing his nature. In the film’s pivotal scene, Walter the Woodsman follows a Little Red Riding Hood of his own into the local park. Has his resolve snapped, or is he testing himself? When he asks her to sit on his lap, your stomach plummets.

Bacon – an underrated actor – here turns in a performance that’s unsettling and complex; he’s neither villain nor victim. With Walter totally withdrawn into himself, Bacon still manages to convey the character’s deep-seated self-loathing. “When will I be normal?” he growls at his therapist, both impatient and scared. It’s a career peak.

There are a few weak links (how in God’s name did anyone let a convicted paedophile live opposite a school?). But let them slide. This is a bold, uncomfortable piece of cinema.

By Michael Bonner