Analysis: Film takes on pedophilia

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  Nov. 10, 2004 at 6:24 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Nov. 10 (UPI) -- The new film "The Woodsman" is generating Oscar buzz for actor Kevin Bacon, but it is also likely to generate a different kind of talk -- controversy over its empathetic depiction of Bacon's character, a convicted child molester who struggles to conquer his illness and rejoin society.

Bacon plays Walter, who returns to his hometown after serving 12 years in prison for molesting a young girl. He gets a place to live and a job at a lumberyard -- but his compulsion stays with him. A local police detective (Mos Def) keeps a watchful, distrustful eye on him, and a co-worker at the lumberyard (Eve) makes sure his co-workers know about his past.

Walter strikes up a relationship with a co-worker -- played by Bacon's wife, Kyra Sedgwick -- but intimacy is problematic, given his criminal behavior and the well-documented difficulty that pedophiles generally have in controlling their urges.

Given the strong strain of societal rejection of child molesters -- a public mood that has been intensified in recent times due to high-profile cases of abuse -- it seems as though bringing "The Woodsman" to the marketplace is a risky venture. In an interview with United Press International, writer-director Nicole Kassell said she didn't think in those terms when she decided to make this her first feature.

"It wasn't, 'Why would I do something as insane as this, to pick such difficult subject matter, for my first film?'" she said.

Rather, she said seeing Steven Fechter's play -- which she and Fechter adapted for the screen -- was such a powerful experience that she felt she needed to tell the story on film.

"I just couldn't shake my experience as an audience member," she said.

Getting financial backing for the project proved difficult, but as Kassell said, it's hard to get any kind of first film made. Her first break came when the screenplay won a prize at the 2001 Slamdance Film Festival. But even then, Kassell said it took another year to find a producer, Lee Daniels, who was willing to commit to the project.

"There was a lot of rejection," she said.

When Bacon found out about the project, he not only agreed to star in it but also insisted on serving as a producer. Even then, Kassell said, financing remained difficult to secure.

"The studios passed on it," she said. "Everybody passed on it."

Eventually, Daniels lined up private financing to get the picture made.

Kassell said she understands completely why so many in Hollywood were reluctant to touch the project.

"It's not a subject that people want to talk about," she said. "There's a really interesting duality in our world where everything is highly sexualized and we see rather graphic sex scenes in movies, but at the same time there's not a real honest discussion of it, especially about offense or victims of offense."

Still, the movie industry occasionally finds its way to difficult subject matter such as "Boys Don't Cry," "The Deep End" and "Monster" -- writer-director Patty Jenkins' study of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, which earned a Best Actress Oscar for Charlize Theron.

"Every couple of years these small films break out that are really honest portrayals of a dark subject matter, then studios say that's what they want to get involved in," said Kassell, "and then they don't."

While a central question of "The Woodsman" is how Walter will put his life back together, the police detective provides a constant reminder that victims of abuse also have challenges in putting their lives back together.

Barbara Polland, a professor of child and adolescent development at California State University-Northridge, told UPI that group therapy, drug treatment and castration have had minimal success in treating offenders, and the recidivism rate remains high.

"In the life of a pedophile, generally they have at least 150 victims," she said. "That's many children's live traumatically affected."

A former member of the CSUN faculty, emeritus professor of criminology Lewis Yablonsky, said there are cases of pedophiles getting control over their compulsions. But he said they are never cured.

"These individuals are treated with total contempt by almost everyone, including themselves, and there's a lot of self-hatred involved here," he said. "They are pariahs."

Yablonsky recalled the 1931 Fritz Lang-Peter Lorre movie "M," which he said was "probably the greatest and best" movie ever made on the subject of child molestation.

"The interesting thing about that film is how it depicts that the scum-of-the-earth criminals are outraged by that guy," he said.

It remains to be seen whether moviegoers will overcome general revulsion for the subject matter to go see what Kassell calls "a performance not to be missed" by Bacon.

"Your biggest hope is that it becomes a cultural discussion," she said.

"So much of our media simplifies these men or offenders into a headline," she said. "And there's no doubt that they've done horrific things. But I think my goal is to humanize the person so that they're not simply a monster that came out of a vacuum. They are a son, a brother, potentially a father, and sadly the majority of cases of molestation happen within the family or a friend or church or school -- it's someone who is known and trusted."


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