“For there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.”
–Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
The Woodsman is not an easy movie to watch. Its main character, Walter, played by Kevin Bacon, tries to adjust and assimilate back into society after twelve years in prison. That Walter has a dark secret – he’s a child molester – along with urges he continually fights to control, make him a rather unsympathetic character as his inner turmoil often results in a curt and abrasive outward persona towards others. Yet, in the midst of all we can’t help but let the film’s dramatic question, will Walter succumb to his desires once again, draw us in despite a host of his undesirable traits causing a level of discomfort with the viewer.
In a previous article, Empathy: your story’s best friend and matchmaker for your audience, I noted some of the ways in which to build empathy for a character that may otherwise seem unrelatable – some of which are present in The Woodsman in an effort to understand what Walter is up against in his quest for redemption:
1) Vulnerability: Having just been released from prison, Walter finds himself in a job with a thankless boss who tells him straight up: the only reason why he’s got a job is because of the good work he did for his father. Nobody else knows Walter’s secret, but there’s plenty of prying eyes scoping out the new guy who just prefers to be left alone. It isn’t long before he’s painted as “damaged goods.”
2) Unjust treatment: This one may depend on the individual viewer and their own perceptions of justice as undoubtedly there will be those who have absolutely no empathy/sympathy or desire to understand Walter or his like, but for the sake of analyzing the story – Walter’s done twelve years. Despite the anger he harbors within, we get a sense of where some of it comes from when it becomes clear that once the cat is out of the bag, certain people – even the Sergeant assigned to check in on him – seem intent on watching him fail in his recovery to the point they come off as having questionable morals and perhaps more negative traits than he does. Their actions are immediate so we have an opportunity to witness and feel them whereas Walter’s happened years ago, the audience never privy to them which – despite their seriousness – diminish the impact, if at least somewhat, and we we’re not able to readily “judge” him with the same sense of immediacy as the others. What makes this tilt empathy slightly to Walter is–
3) Change: The fact he’s making an effort to change. He has uncomfortable exchanges with a workplace fling in Vicki (played by real-life wife Kyra Sedgwick), with the Sgt. assigned to look over him as well as with other co-workers, a brother-in-law and a therapist – most of the conflict a result of his own demons, but he never chooses to succumb to them completely – giving us some hope he’ll find redemption.
4) Suffering: There’s no doubt that Walter is suffering from both his past exploits and his current state of affairs via the motif of the reoccurring bouncing red ball. While as viewers we might distance ourselves from what Walter has done, we still connect on some level to the notion of fighting inner compulsions and urges – regardless of what they may be. There’s also a sense that Walter is willing to suffer in silence than have a negative impact on another’s life, such as Vicki’s, with is attempts to push her away speaking to a low level of self-worth. As we’ll see at the climax, Walter flat out hates himself.
5) Authenticity: Despite his secret, Walter acts authentic and refuses to put on a false front. Even when he’s talking to an eleven year old girl, he’s incredibly straight-forward and honest in answering her questions – though perhaps not giving her enough of a context to put them in that would make her run away. In short, Walter knows his short-comings and knows why people won’t accept him which is ultimately what drives his fearful behavior: push them away and keep your distance before they have an opportunity to do so first…because they’ll never understand.
None of these make Walter “likable” the least bit – but they do provide us with the context to understand him in, especially when the external pressure mounts (co-workers finding out) along with the internal pressures (the urges, inability to cope.) When we learn early on Walter’s living across the street from a grade-school, it doesn’t strike us because we don’t know what his secret is – but when we find out, we’re left to wonder…when will Walter’s demons get the best of him?
Just slightly over half-way into the movie, Walter follows a young girl into a park. He has a brief discussion with her, but she quickly becomes uneasy when he declares himself “a people watcher” rather than a bird watcher like she and excuses herself, noting her father likes her home before dark. This, of course, is merely set up – as the girl will find Walter sitting alone in the park later in the film’s emotional-wollap of a pivotal scene, fraught with subtext, unexpected twists and above all else, empathy.
Please be forewarned – this is not an easy scene to watch due to the subject matter, but it’s perhaps the mirroring of damaged souls which makes it so powerful and worth analyzing.
Empathy, as noted by Hodges & Klein in Regulating the costs of empathy: the price of being human. Journal of Socio-Economics:
“has many different definitions that encompass a broad range of emotional states, including caring for other people and having a desire to help them; experiencing emotions that match another person’s emotions; discerning what another person is thinking or feeling; and making less distinct the differences between the self and the other.”
In this pivotal scene from The Woodsman, it’s important to note an audience’s empathy for a character can be influenced by that character’s relationship with others. We see much of what others think of Walter, with many making little attempt to understand him or give him a chance to redeem himself; the cards are stacked against him much like the setting and events defining Red’s perspective in The Shawshank Redemption. What gives this scene its power and makes it resonate is the fact that Robin isn’t about to become a victim – but that she is a victim…and to make matters worse, it wasn’t by some stranger in a park.
Prior to this, Walter’s confession to Vicki came with a disclaimer: “It’s not what you think. I never hurt them.” This is easy to say for the perpetrator whose life continues far removed from the crimes they’ve committed against others, never having to see the everlasting effects manifest first hand. So naturally this is Walter’s perspective – one that’s challenged when he’s actually confronted with a victim and sees first-hand the pain someone else has caused from the very same behaviors.
When Robin says she doesn’t like it when her father asks her to sit on his lap, Walter has absolutely no understanding as to why she wouldn’t because he’s only seen the act from his perspective. You can see it in his face as he holds her hurtful gaze, the smile withering from his face as he tries to comprehend, ultimately asking confusedly, “Why not?”
Robin, in turn, goes into avoidance and withdraws, prompting Walter to ask a bevy of questions based on his personal experience. This is Walter’s attempt to understand – to make a connection – to have empathy. Robin, however, battles her own inner feelings – clamming up and then gazing through her binoculars as a means of escaping from the moment…but it works for only so long until she breaks down in tears.
It’s this moment that Walter begins to understand the emotional pain a victim has to live with, his head shaking as he reaches a level of self-awareness that begins to shift his perspective – but then the unthinkable happens: while looking away in shame, Robin stares at him with her own level of empathy and despite the pain it’s caused her, becomes selfless and offers herself up – to which he declines, unable to indulge his demons any longer now having realized the pain he’s put others through.
But the scene doesn’t end here. An eleven year old child, whose innocence we can only guess has been lost at this point, still manages to do a very innocent thing: she shows compassion and gives Walter a hug. By no coincidence, Robin – as she notes “named after the bird” – symbolizes growth, renewal and the wisdom of change, things her character influences upon Walter.
At the climax of the film shortly afterward, Walter finds a level of redemption by attacking what turns out to be a pedophile stalking children right outside his window. Having noticed the man earlier, the viewer, at the point, is unaware of the man’s culpability – even so after the fact – until the Sergeant appears knocking at Walter’s door, his demeanor changed toward him as he recounts the attack on the known pedophile with an understanding of who did it.
Empathy in The Woodsman is essential to the story’s structure and overall message. It has a clear purpose in telling the story of change for Walter and is used effectively to drive that change – perhaps less important for the audience in its relationship to him than the other characters, particularly Robin. But it’s through her act in return – her empathy as a victim – that helps transform Walter and give the story depth and meaning.
In the next article, I’ll explore a much loved, blockbuster Pixar film that surprisingly does the complete opposite and used empathy all wrong. Until then, here’s the trailer for The Woodsman.