David Hines (hradzka) wrote,
David Hines

A night at the movies: "Precinct 13" and "The Woodsman"

I went to the movies recently and caught a couple of flicks. Not long ago, I saw The Aviator, which I liked. This last time, of which I type, I caught a double feature. I enjoy a little cognitive dissonance in my movie-watching; yours truly has been known to watch My Dinner With Andre and Revenge of the Nerds back-to-back. So I saw two very different movies: the remake of Assault on Precinct 13 and The Woodsman.

The former was okay. A couple of good things, and some decent action. The cast was a mixed bag. I always like seeing Brian Dennehy, who's always relaxed and dependable. Ethan Hawke was all right. John Leguizamo was perfectly Leguizamo: he's fantastic in smaller roles, but you never want to give him anything bigger ever because his ego is the size of the frigging planet and its gravitational pull will distort his performance and your movie. He had a smaller role and it worked. Maria Bello was pretty good, which is high praise considering that the first time I saw her in a movie I hoped Godzilla would eat her just to get her off the screen. Ja Rule sucked, but then his job is to draw rap fans and provide a title song for the soundtrack, and he did both of those. Lawrence Fishburne was LF, and that's really all you needed. He didn't act, much. Didn't have to. Drea De Matteo... eh. The movie hit some and missed some, but it did have one moment where I was honestly surprised that they did something -- which is rare.

Then I saw The Woodsman, which merits serious commentary.

I will post this here, up front, because the content of the movie may understandably make you want to step away from the rest of this review: Kevin Bacon plays a pedophile.

His name is Walter, and he has been released on supervised parole after twelve years in prison. We are not told, at first, just what Walter did, but we see that people who know what he did are very, very uncomfortable around him, and it's not long into the movie before we find out why. Walter begins a relationship -- which starts out as a one-night stand -- with a woman from his workplace. She knows he has a dark secret. One that he won't tell. Finally, the topic comes up again. Walter asks the woman -- her name is Vickie -- what the worst thing is she's ever done. "I fucked my best friend's husband," says Vickie. Not just best friend; best friend forever, since childhood. It destroyed the marriage and the friendship, and Vickie hates herself when she thinks of it.

Walter says, "I molested little girls."

He understands his pathology, within limits. Walter knows he liked -- likes -- girls, ages nine to twelve. Once an eight-year-old told him she was nine; once a fourteen-year-old told him she was twelve. He rattles this off quickly, effortlessly, when asked about the ages of his victims. Just how many victims there were, we're not told. Walter isn't inclined to talk about things that could get him in trouble. When his therapist suggests he keep a journal, Walter's reason for refusal consists of one word: "Evidence." The less he says, the more he can deny, even to himself. Denial is a big part of Walter's pathology; he takes pains to point out, as if it mattered, that he never physically hurt his victims. Except, of course, he never uses the word "physically." "I never hurt them," he insists, meaning it. "Never."

The script, by director Nicole Kassell and co-writer Steven Fechter, is remorseless in dissecting Walter's character, and Bacon is fearless in portraying Walter. Walter knows he's not normal, and that acting on his desires is wrong -- but that knowledge, that acceptance of his pathology and the attendant responsibility to fight it, only goes so far. When Walter's self-knowledge threatens to contend with his self-image, self-knowledge takes a back seat. As rapists go, he would be classified "pseudo-unselfish." Walter is not sadistic. His behavior is of the type that one sees in "cuddler" rapists, or in many instances of acquaintance rape. He wants his victim to like him, or at least to act like it. That he accomplishes this through coercion does not intrude upon his mental radar. When he is forced -- it happens, twice -- to acknowledge that aspect of his actions, it rattles him to his foundations. Because it calls into question his *morality* -- and while Walter can deal with being sick, he absolutely cannot stand to think of himself as choosing to do evil.

I won't spoil either of those two moments, but there is one I'll discuss briefly. In one scene, Walter talks about elements of his childhood with his therapist. His therapist gets him to admit to certain things -- to a degree. And then Walter clamps down. And when the therapist presses him -- I won't say about what -- Walter lies. And lies. And lies. And you can see it in his face, in every taut line, and hear it in every harsh syllable Bacon chokes out. Because telling the truth would mean compromising his self-image, and *he's not going to do that.* Because if he does, then his sickness isn't his greatest problem after all.

At one point in the film, Vickie tells Walter that there's good in him, even if he can't see it. She doesn't realize that she's wrong: Walter does see the good in himself. And that's his problem. For Walter, his desires *and his actions* are all part of his sickness, which he must fight. He is reluctant to understand that if he's well enough to be out in the world, then his desires and actions must be separate; that his wanting little girls is a sickness, but his preying on them is a choice. Because if he couldn't choose not to give in to his desires, the system would be insane to let him out.

The nature of the conflict in Walter's character makes The Woodsman a curiously old-fashioned movie in some ways. Its drama lies in the main character's making, or not making, choices -- and not just choices, but *moral* choices. That's unusual, and it made me realize how postmoral the modern world is, in a lot of ways. I'll give you an example. There is a segment in the film in which Walter goes to the mall. Young girls pass him, wearing skimpy clothes, and he looks. He sees one girl, and follows her. Carefully. From a distance. Sizing her up. Making a plan. Walter goes from being a struggling man to being a capable hunter. He does not complete the chase. He becomes alarmed, realizes what he is doing, and leaves the mall. Later, Walter discusses his pursuit with his therapist. The therapist emphasizes the facts that Walter broke the pursuit off, and that he's talking about it in therapy. The therapist tells him that's positive.

No, I thought, it's *not.* It's just better than the worst that could have happened.

Walter has his blind spots, but he is perceptive. Sometimes this backfires on him; in one scene, Walter derails a conversation horribly when he catches a hint of what looks like, to him, familiar subtext. (As he does so, the soundtrack subtly changes; the background noise drops, and there's a muffling of the actors' voices, along with a high, quiet drone that sounds a little like tinnitus -- I find it hard to express how *right* that moment is, that bit of sound design before Walter speaks, but it's uncanny. It is the sound heard by a man who says something brutally heartless and stupid and wrong because his dick leads him into playing a longshot that the response will be the words he wants to hear. Every man hears it some time, and opens his mouth anyway. For me, it was one of the movie's really horrifying moments; there's an instant of almost-identification that's blown away by the nauseating realization of what's going to happen, and when Walter does open his mouth there's revulsion and the most awful pity.)

When Walter's perception doesn't backfire, it's a keen tool. Example: Walter's leanings as a pedophile give him considerable insight into how pedophiles operate. In one of the film's storylines, Walter realizes that a child molestor is working a schoolyard near Walter's apartment. He spots the man immediately, before an approach is made; later, Walter observes and reflects on the technique of the man, whom he calls "Candy."

Candy, unlike Walter, likes boys. And unlike Walter, Candy has a car. He works the yard, befriending various boys, getting to the point where he can lure one inside. Walter watches the process carefully, noting Candy's small successes and failures on the way. Even as Walter dissects Candy's game, though, he butts up against his personal self-image -- the roots of it that are cold and inflexible. The coercive aspect of child molestation is just too uncomfortable for Walter to deal with. Walter sees the process as seduction -- which, from the molester's point of view, is not inaccurate. But the urge to project the molester's desires, to detach from the morality, is too strong: "if the boy gets into the car for a ride," writes Walter, "it's because the boy wants to go for a ride."

If Walter is redeemed at all over the course of the film, it is because this detachment is rattled -- by things he confronts, in therapy and in wrestling with his desires. The degree of his redemption is very limited. He makes some choices, and neglects to make others. Some of the choices Walter neglects to make are evil in their own right. The ultimate struggle Walter faces is of comprehending his own morality -- i.e., his responsibility to choose not to actively do evil. But that's a small step, and even a complete victory there won't be enough to make him a moral man, let atone for all the evil he has done. For Walter, that small step may be all he'll ever be able to take. The film asks you to watch and find out if he can take it.

The Woodsman is a great film. It is a small film, intensely concerned with human beings. It is not without flaws; if anything, it has too many monsters. But you cannot be unaffected by your view of the monster who is its center.

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