“The Woodsman” opens with convicted pedophile Walter (Kevin Bacon) returning home after a twelve year stint in prison. Not surprisingly, he finds that his entire support network has evaporated. After all, who wants to be associated with a pedophile?
But how blurred the criteria of social condemnation can be. In the late eighties the glam metal band “Winger” had a song called “Seventeen” in which the slimy lead singer Kip Winger crooned of bedding down with a girl perhaps in her senior year in high school. “Mamma says she’s too young, but she’s old enough for me!” he wailed smugly. And that was apparently okay. After all, the song climbed the charts. And then there’s the subtly creepy Ringo Starr singing “You’re sixteen, you’re beautiful, and you’re mine.” But perhaps most disturbing of all is Gary Puckett’s skin-crawling “Young Girl” in which he moans “Young girl, get out of my mind. My love for you is way out of line! Better run girl, you’re much too young girl!” Just how young are we talking Gary? Brrrrr. How was that song a hit in 68′? This is almost like listening to Humbert sing of his longing for the vivacious Dolores (Lolita).
Walter does not have the benefit of a hit song like Kip Winger, Ringo Starr or Gary Puckett. But he has certainly taken his share of hits, physical and otherwise. And yet he still can’t seem to get away from the children. As “The Woodsman” progresses we see him begin to hang out across from the school yard — every parent’s worst nightmare — and eventually to hone in on one young girl. But at the same time he is consumed by guilt and regret and struggling to overcome his impulses. He really wants to have a normal relationship with a woman, but he also has these screaming desires.
Walter is dirty, disgusting, the ultimate social outcast. And without restraint we pour out our hatred and disapprobation upon him. But what if Walter is the lead singer, scrubbed up with spandex and stage make up and he meets the fourteen year old for a brief tryst under the stage? The evil and damage done to the young victim are the same. (Listen to Larry Norman’s classic song “Pardon Me” which narrates the emotional toll on the young groupie.)
We seem surprisingly tolerant as a society of the rock star with pedophilic tendencies. (I’m sure you remember where you were when you learned that Michael Jackson died.) And it ain’t just music. What about the advertising of Abercrombie and Fitch, with their push-up bras for eight year olds? And what about Bratz dolls, some in leather, lipstick and diapers? Walter’s crimes are not excused. But perhaps we should spend more time reflecting on the crimes of the rest of us.
The most important lesson from “The Woodsman” is that, to put it succinctly, we’re all crap. It is not an easy film to watch, but it is an important one. (For that matter, so is Steve James’ 2002 documentary “Stevie”, a close up look at a pedophile who, incredibly enough, is also somehow a human being.) Anyways, here’s how the ever-eloquent Roger Ebert put it:
“The Woodsman” understands this at the very heart of its being, and that is why it succeeds as more than just the story of this character. It has relevance for members of the audience who would never in any way be even remotely capable of Walter’s crime. We are quick to forgive our own trespasses, slower to forgive those of others. The challenge of a moral life is to do nothing that needs forgiveness. In that sense, we’re all out on parole.