Dysfunctional Sexuality

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Review of 'The Woodsman', director Nicole Kassell

This film is likely to be pilloried by the right wing press in the US where it was filmed. Possibly their British counterparts will join the ruckus too. It's the kind of piece that sends the right into a frenzy about how morally reprehensible and socially irresponsible liberals are. But that's not the only reason why I'd recommend it.

Walter (played by Kevin Bacon) re-enters the world after 12 years in prison, convicted of indecent assault involving young girls. We are asked to empathise with the difficulties he has re-establishing a life outside, dealing with the legacy of having been institutionalised and the social and personal consequences of his crime. He is ostracised by those who discover his past and is prisoner to his own demons.

The Woodsman paints a picture where sexual relationships that are dysfunctional, non-reciprocal and anti-social are everywhere. It shows not only paedophilia but also sexual harassment in the workplace, womanising and familial sexual abuse. Sometimes the story seems to set up a situation purely to vindicate a thesis that 'everybody is flawed or damaged'. But the details of the characters and the sexual abuse they have experienced do bear a relationship to reality. In the US, some estimate that one in four children are victims of sexual abuse. So, while Walter is in no way portrayed as a universal character, the issues are ones that cut right through society. For that reason alone, I welcome a film that tries to evoke some honest dialogue about how we respond to a social problem on that scale.

Walter has difficulty, for example, in discerning whether his brother in law's feelings for his daughter are 'normal fatherly love' or hold within them the dangerous lure of sexual feelings. The brother in law would rather not even confront the possibility. We are constantly made aware of the blurred lines between normal (sexual) relations and the possibility of sexual transgression. These ambiguities open up questions about what are normal human relations and how the act of sex and sexuality fit into that. Sex is shown as the site of guilt, shame and taboo. It is something we rarely confront directly, yet something that is everywhere. It underlies so many of our actions and has personal and social consequences that flow much further than the act itself. The extent to which it defines who we are is the subject of much of Walter's agonising.

In order for us to sympathise with Walter's character, it would have been easy to make him a martyr seeking retribution. The film walks a fine line on this count, but ultimately doesn't avoid presenting Walter even in his most uncomfortable moments. It is a role that could not have been accomplished without the masterful and nuanced performance given by Kevin Bacon.

Screenwriter and director Nicole Kassell has been explicit about the fact that this film does not attempt to provide answers. Even when Walter appears to be making progress with his personal life, there is the sense that what he terms normality - to be able to see young girls and not sexualise them - will always be a struggle. There lingers the possibility that he may never achieve this. Additional to the bold request of asking us to sympathise with Walter, The Woodsman situates the issue of paedophilia as one that has its roots in society. If the film is agnostic about its ultimate causes, there is an underlying suggestion that our sexualities are bound to be distorted when the very way that we relate to each other is distorted.

A couple of the artistic devices are out of synch with the overall visual realism of the film (a kidnap scene with a sports commentary voiceover and some clunky metaphor). But overwhelmingly, this is more about story and performances than fancy cinematography.