It’s probably best to start any conversation about Nicole Kassell’s 2004 film The Woodsman with the disclaimer that it isn’t for the faint of heart. But that’s the exact reason this film is so essential. Years before the #MeToo movement brought on more frank and direct conversations about sexual abuse, Kassell’s work feels in many ways ahead of its time.
Kassell’s feature debut is a bold one. The Woodsman, which she co-adapted with Steven Fechter from his play of the same name, centers around Walter (Kevin Bacon), a convicted child molester who is released from prison after serving a 12-year sentence. Life on the outside is difficult and Walter struggles with how to reintegrate into society while fighting his own demons.
Walter’s character is a skilled woodworker, so it would seem logical that the title refers to him. But when a cop named Lucas (Yasiin Bey as Mos Def) comes to berate Walter at his apartment, he tells the story about a horrific child molestation case he had to investigate. Lucas brings up the fairytale Little Red Riding Hood and laments to Walter that in real life, there is no Woodsman to save little girls. While there may be no woodsmen in Kassell’s film, Walter is hardly a wolf.
Kassell’s depiction of Walter as a complex character is as fascinating as it is challenging. Walter is haunted by, and desperately fighting against, his own urges. He’s ostracized by his sister, harassed by his co-workers and demonized by a cop determined to send him back to jail. But Walter also lives in heavy denial about his crimes and their consequences. When explaining to his girlfriend what he did, he insists “I didn’t hurt them.” He’s clearly still attracted to underage girls as displayed by a number of cringe-inducing scenes. Kassell leans into these uncomfortable scenes. The film never flinches, even if you do.