The Woodsman review

Let's get one thing straight - this is not a movie about child molesting. It's a movie about a child molester. It might seem like a spindly distinction, but events here don't simply revolve around a paedophile's crimes. They revolve around his frustrated, grasping, desperate efforts to lead a "normal" life.

Shunting all his ease and poise deep within himself, Kevin Bacon plays this damaged, shuttered man with searing simplicity. Walter knows that what he did was wrong and knows that he's suffered for it. All he longs for now is to be just like everyone else; for the suffering to end.

"When am I going to be normal?" he implores his shrink. "How long is it going to take? When am I going to be able to look at a little girl and not have these feelings?"

That's the film's core question. Half its characters clearly believe Walter is a monster, from the brother-in-law (Benjamin Bratt) who's quite happy to share a liberal beer with Walter but refuses to let him anywhere near his daughter, to the police detective (Mos Def) who crops up at his apartment ready to lock him away in a heartbeat. They're all waiting for Walter to fail, to fall again. And so are the audience. In a film where relatively little seems to happen - Walter starts a relationship, it splutters, he writes in his journal - the power really comes from all the things Walter is forcing himself not to do. But can he keep this level of self-restraint up? That's one of the main triumphs of writer/director Nicole Kassell's occasionally stagey but never overblown movie: you're never sure whether Walter will succeed or fail. It's a constant doubt that leads to some sickening moments of worry.

The film's other triumph is Bacon, who is astounding. It's all about the understated, internalised pain of an addict glimpsed through flickers of the eyes and tilts of the head; the bleak, long-dodged awareness that "normal" will never truly be an option, and that the best he can hope for is a tightly controlled approximation of it, burying his desires deep and never acting on them.

If only the Academy's conservative-minded voters could stomach the subject matter, he would get the Oscar he's long deserved. He's not the only one who deserves a statuette though, with the impressive Sedgwick and Bratt actually eclipsed by rapper-turned-actor Mos Def. He only appears three times as police detective Lucas, but his poise and world-weary power conjure a character you simply can't take your eyes off. In a film where Bacon's performance so simply and brilliantly dominates the emotional landscape, that's some achievement

Icy, tense and disturbing, this is Bacon's best work yet. We'll take The Woodsman's questioning humanity over soapbox moralising any day.

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