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'The Woodsman' could bea hard sell for Bacon

Film about child molester all the buzz at Sundance but will it play in Peoria?
/ Source: Reuters

“The Woodsman,” starring Kevin Bacon, may not play in Peoria -- to paraphrase the old show business saying -- but if the film about a pedophile can win fans anywhere, it is here at the Sundance Film Festival.

Bacon, who has gone from teen idol after 1984’s “Footloose” to respected veteran in critical hits like “Mystic River,” could risk losing fans for sympathetically playing a molester, albeit one trying to overcome his obsession, but he doesn’t see it that way.

“I’ve never really worried too much about what sort of an image I had as a performer. I don’t really even know what my image is, to tell the truth,” Bacon told Reuters.

Sundance annually champions ideas outside mainstream film, and the themes in ”Woodsman” fit that mold. “Will it play in Peoria” is Hollywood’s age-old question of whether a film will appeal to audiences outside the big cities.

“The Woodsman” premiered to a packed house here Monday, and is one of the more talked-about films of the festival due to its subject matter.

In the movie, Bacon portrays Walter, who has spent 12 years in prison for molesting girls as young as 11 years old.

Throughout “Woodsman,” Walter’s sexual obsession and his attempts to overcome it are tested, first by living across the street from a grade school, then by a cop who constantly hounds him. His therapist forces Walter to confront his past by writing in a journal, and ultimately Walter tests himself as he confronts girls daily.

Walter seeks comfort in a relationship with a co-worker, Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick, Bacon’s wife in real life) who also has a dark past. Their relationship, however, is tested when Vickie learns of Walter’s crimes.

Ultimately, what audiences get from “The Woodsman” is not a movie about a pedophile, which is too simplistic. Rather, “The Woodsman” tells audiences what creates the disease and how keeping it in the dark ultimately does society a disservice, the film’s makers said.

Villain or humanStill, the actors and first-time director Nicole Kassell know that a movie with a protagonist who is a pedophile will be a hard sell at theater box offices.

Feature films with this topic, perhaps only with rare exceptions like Stanley Kulbrick’s version of “Lolita,” have never fared well with moviegoers, Bacon said.

“It elicits the most anger and hard feelings of any topic in cinema and is traditionally used as a tool ... to feel a strong drive for revenge,” he said.

The actor said he ought to know, he played a pedophile in 1996’s “Sleepers,” but that character was a stereotypical villain who was ultimately killed.

“The audience stood up and cheered,” he said, “but the chance to challenge that (stereotype) and show this man as a real man, versus a monster, was challenging,” he said.

The film’s makers, including Nicole Kassell, point to recent films like “Monster’s Ball,” about racism, or “Boys Don’t Cry,” about gender identity, as films that won sterling reviews, sold tickets and made audiences talk about taboo subjects, which is their ultimate goal. “Monster’s Ball” producer Lee Daniels also produced “The Woodsman.”

Kassell said shedding light on such a dark subject was important because the causes and effects of pedophilia are complicated and deserve more attention than sensationalized media headlines.

Time will tell whether “Woodsman” gets that attention after the festival ends, and whether it ultimately plays in towns like Peoria.

“Plenty of pictures come to Sundance, you read about them and you never see the thing,” said Bacon.