NYU film school alumni Nicole Kassell announces herself as a strong new voice, delivering an uncompromising, character-driven story told with intelligence, restraint, and emotional clarity. A fairy tale of sorts cloaked in the grainy naturalism of 1970s Golden Age cinema, The Woodsman follows the release of a child sex offender from prison, who adjusts to his new job at a lumber yard and his residence across the street from an elementary school. As played by Kevin Bacon, this would-be monster walks through his life attempting to wall up his predatory addictions, and it’s a performance of supreme control and haunting emotional nuances. The world surrounding him is filled in with vivid characterizations waiting to blow up in his face, such as a loyal brother-in-law (Benjamin Bratt) trying to stand by him and a detached, eerily contemplative police investigator (a vivid Mos Def) so burned out by the job that he’s like a walking anomaly.
Though Kassell falls into typical first-time filmmaker traps with some heavy-handed Little Red Riding Hood allegory and an over-reliance on ‘70s aesthetic rip-offs (a poignant sex scene references Don’t Look Now), at least she’s using the tried and true cinematic tools of former masters Nicolas Roeg and Hal Ashby. One hopes she’ll grow more confident in her own voice. Without shying away from the main character’s darker sides, we’re engendered sympathy for Walter (Bacon) as he attempts picking up the pieces and starting a tentative romance with a broken angel co-worker (Kyra Sedgwick, once again playing a working class woman without falling into stock clichés).
The Woodsman takes Walter as he is, and doesn’t romanticize him, or transform him into a leering villain. The viewer is provoked into a mixed feeling of disgust, melancholy, and empathy during the key scenes where he befriends a little girl in the park (the astonishing Hannah Pilkes). Hoping for the best but fearing the worst, The Woodsman is able to resolutely sustain its mounting dramatic tension through to its even-handed climax. This Sundance winner delivers everything one would hope from American independent drama, which has become increasingly degraded by calling cards from trust fund babies. Kassell reveals Walter as an interesting subject: a human being, not necessarily one to be trusted but one that is, by the end of the film, somewhat understood.