JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Mary Kay insists, "People have a right to know." Implied is that she speaks as a mother, since we see children's drawings on her bulletin board. Director Kessell says both Lucas and Mary Kay have justifiable perspectives, based on their social position. The script fosters ambivalent audience response by not allowing viewers to identify only with Walter's point of view, even though here the sequence illustrates how hard notification laws make it for offenders to reintegrate into the community.

Internal framing and the placing of Walter as a small figure in his environment, as well as the dull bluish tones that make up the film's palette — all these convey Walter's feelings of isolation and powerlessness.

The same kinds of framing and use of dull bluish color are used when we see him outside.

Walter must see a therapist, a young man who does not seem particularly skilled or charismatic. The script avoids making the therapy scenes emotionally engaging or dramatically curative, as is done in Good Will Hunting or Ordinary People.

Walter may have molested his younger sister, but we are not told that. What he says is that she would sit on his lap when they were children and he would revel in the smell of her hair.

At the advice of his therapist, Walter begins a journal. At first he resisted, saying it was "evidence." He uses it to document the activities of a potential preditor he sees around the school, whom he names Candy.

Walter's brother-in-law Carlos has remained friendly to him.

Carlos says he's loyal to Walter because Walter was one of the few people who accepted his sister's engagement to "a brown-skinned man."

Walter misunderstands Carlos, telling the therapist that Carlos loves his daughter "too much." On the other hand, Carlos misundertands Walter when Walter tries to discuss the sexual feelings that parents have for their children.

Carlos becomes enraged and says he will kill Walter if Walter ever lays a hand on Carlos and the sister, Annette's, little girl.

Candy tries to lure boys to come with him in his car...

...by offering them candy.

The film tries to balance out a view of child molestation by including both heterosexual and homosexual examples. But our sympathy for Walter vs....

...Candy's act of predation make the homosexual molestation seem more threatening and dangerous. The fact is that most molestation occurs among acquaintances and especially within the extended family.

Walter beats up Candy when he sees Candy letting a child out of his car after dark. Candy's bloodied face is briefly exchanged...

with an image of Walter's, indicating that...

...Walter's excessive rage is directed largely against himself.

Lucas stops by to tell Walter about the attack near the school and that the "victim" had a record as an abuser. He implicitly indicates he knew Walter did it but is ok with that. Walter also indicates that he is closer to recovery because...

...he is moving in with a woman. The romance subplot between Walter and Vicki has provided a major way for us to identify with him. This shot of them moving his things into her van is significantly not shot though the bars of his venetian blinds.

At the end, Vicki and Carlos are present as Walter has a meeting with his sister, in which she is clearly still angry at him. We see this from a distance and do not hear what is said.

 

 

"I don’t know why they keep letting
freaks like you out on the street" —
Criticisms of current policy

The film The Woodsman develops some of the social issues about managing sexual offenders in the community, bringing some of the major political and academic concerns to life. In particular, it critically explores the issues of supervision and monitoring, community notification and "child safety zones."

On release, Walter is subject to both treatment, through ongoing counselling, and supervision and monitoring by a tough cop, Sergeant Lucas. Lucas makes no secret of his hatred of sex offenders, threatening to throw Walter out of a window, knowing that that there would be very little concern:

"You think somebody’s gonna miss you?…You’d just be a dead piece of shit."

Lucas revels in telling the lurid detail of extreme sexual crimes he has investigated, and he tars Walter with the same brush:

"I don’t know why they keep letting freaks like you out on the street. It just means we got to catch you all over again."

This is a widely held view, as Senator Shapiro has illustrated:

"The nature and deviousness of these offenders and the innocent and vulnerable character of their victims combine to form a highly toxic and flammable mixture when it comes to public confidence in the system. The public does not really care what we do with sex offenders. All it cares about is that these offenders are kept off our streets" (Shapiro 1998).

Putting aside the issue of whether the film's portrayal of Lucas is "realistic," increased monitoring and assertive supervision of sex offenders has become a feature of US ("Jacob Wetterling" and "Pam Lychner" Acts) and UK legislation (Sexual Offences Act 1997) through the introduction of sex offender registers. There are questions about the effectiveness of these registers. For example, Lieb (1998) showed that in Washington state, prisoners who were released with and without notification committed the same number of new sex offences. However, the timing to re-arrest was quicker among the notification group. It may be argued that the sex offenders registry is a valuable tool that helps early intervention (the study was not conclusive on this point). But this film presents the idea that this kind of supervision increases the risk by placing pressure on offenders. Indeed, in the UK, the biggest increase in sexual offences has been in "Breach of Trust" offences, i.e., ones relating to registration. These first appeared in 2001 and now account for almost 10% of sexual offences (Home Office 2004). Is the existence of sex offender registries really making the community safer, or is it simply a reflection of fear, intolerance and the unwillingness of the community to accept released sex offenders in their midst?

The film's title comes from the story of Little Red Riding Hood, where at the end of the fable, the Woodsman cuts open the wolf and finds Little Red Riding Hood safe and well inside. Sergeant Lucas tells the story after recounting to Walter a brutal child murder that he investigated, where the child was "sodomised in half." Lucas depressingly concludes that, "there are no fucking Woodsmen in this world." His words seem to expose the limitations of a reactive approach to policing sex offenders — there are no happy endings here.   

A common argument deployed against this assertive approach to community supervision and notification is that it undermines attempts to treat offenders and manage risk (e.g. see comments of the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Chief Officers of Probation in Silverman & Wilson 2002). This film presents a graphic portrayal of this result of constant surveillance. When Walter is asked by his counsellor to keep a journal of his thoughts, his response is, "No fucking way." When asked why, he simply says, "Evidence." Although Walter starts to keep a journal, he constantly hides it from the policeman and is terrified when Lucas almost stumbles across it. The professionals' confused approach here means that there is a lack of consistency among those involved in managing Walter.   

Another emblematic policy that has arisen during the last decade is community notification. In the US, this developed after the murder of Megan Kanka, which led to the introduction of "Megan’s Law." In the UK, the murder of Sarah Payne led for calls for an equivalent "Sarah’s Law." And there was a short-lived but dramatic campaign by the News of the World newspaper to disclose the names of sex offenders in the community. Although these calls were resisted in the UK, there are limited powers for community notification in high-risk cases under the Sexual Offences Act 1997. This policy has aroused significant argument about whether it is a legitimate tool to inform the community of the genuine risks, or whether it undermines attempts to manage risk, creates a false sense of security, or encourages vigilantism (Pearson 1998). Certainly, research suggests no clear evidence of any real benefits (see Silverman & Wilson 2002).  

This film makes a number of points about these social and legal measures. Firstly, community notification is misused by Walter’s co-worker, Mary-Kay, after he spurs her advances. Although she makes pious claims that people have a "right to know," her disclosure of the information throughout the wood mill is motivated by bitterness and jealousy. The others in the mill react in predictably hostile and even violent ways. This is one of the triggers that pushes Walter towards his meeting with Robin.

Near the end of the film, following the attack on Candy, we find out that Candy was wanted in another state for raping a boy. The point the film makes is that some sex offenders simply leave the area where their presence has been noticed and go underground elsewhere. This same issue has been raised in academic literature (Perason 1998) and by law enforcement agencies (e.g. see comments of the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Chief Officers of Probation in Silverman & Wilson 2002).

More recently, an idea of creating "child safety zones" has emerged. It entails introducing exclusion areas around areas populated by children, such as play areas or schools. More recently, there has been attempts to commercially exploit social fear, in one instance by building a "sex offender-free" neighbourhood in Texas where potential homebuyers are screened for previous convictions (Blaney 2005). In the film, Walter has a flat that overlooks a school, but he counts out the 320 feet from his door to the school gate. Although he remains outside the exclusion area, he is not reducing the risk. More significantly, as has been described previously, such measures do not address the risk of unconvicted sex offenders, including those in the family. This evidence of social denial exposes the tokenism that underlies this sort of exclusionary action. If we buy into legislation or commercial opportunism that simply makes us feel good, but does not address the real problems, we are likely to make things worse, not better. 

The Woodsman has a complex script. It is critical of popular methods for managing child sex offenders in the community. It builds up a picture of numerous social and interpersonal methods that undermine attempts to reform, rehabilitate and resettle. The film builds up a picture of the collateral damage in terms of abuse of human rights and due process by law enforcement agencies, violence, hostility, irresponsible use of notification, and policy that is little more than a token. Above all, though, the film builds up a picture that social policies are now far from providing an effective means of managing risks. The film's narrative indicates that much of the current social approach increases the risk by building pressure on Walter and driving him towards further offending.     

"Will I ever be normal?"
A critique of what works 

The film does not simply reject mainstream methods for managing sex offenders in the community. It also develops some important alternatives. In particular, it develops the notion of a more inclusive and supportive approach. However, the film does not shy away from depicting the risks and from valuing the limits of our tolerance. It also hints at the hidden abuse, the vast majority of sexual offending that takes place in the home.

There are a number of important people who help Walter in his attempts to return to the community and resist the temptations of offending — in particular his partner, Vicki, his brother-in-law, Carlos, his employer and his counsellor. After the initial shock of hearing of Walter’s past, Vicki decides to stay with him, and crucially seeks him out at times of crisis. Carlos tries to maintain the link with Walter’s family, until he reaches the limit of his tolerance. His employer stands up for him when his co-workers violently shun him on hearing about his offences, telling them that if they don’t like it, to get another job. Finally, his counsellor sensitively supports him through the turmoil of temptation, desire, resistance and change.

In all, these people form a kind of circle of support, helping and accepting Walter, offering him a second chance. The idea of Circles of Support & Accountability were developed in Canada, originally by practicing Quakers. This approach manages high-risk sex offenders through the work of groups of volunteer community members. Weekly meetings provide intensive support and monitoring (Silverman & Wilson 2002). In Canada, this has produced dramatic results, with a 70% reduction on predicted re-offending (Wilson 2005). In the UK, pilot schemes have also had encouraging progress (Thames Valley Circles of Support & Accountability 2003).

However, such groups clearly face problems with people accepting that this is an appropriate way to manage sexual offenders. Silverman & Wilson (2002) succinctly describe this rejection:

"for many, perhaps the majority, both in the UK and North America, such an inclusive approach is untenable and appears to be some kind of betrayal of abused children."

The Woodsman challenges that preconceived notion, bravely setting a moral benchmark that this approach of using "groups of support and accountability" is not simply better on spurious liberal, ethical grounds, but it may be more effective.

Although this film's narrative follows both Walter and Candy, both of whom are "stranger" offenders, in its characterization, the film also contrasts the two. Walter develops relationships and seeks consent, and does not physically threaten or attack his victims, while Candy is a violent child rapist. The film also exposes abuse that takes place closer to home, abuse within the family. We hear how Walter’s abuse started with his own sister when they were children, and we hear how Vicki was abused by her brothers, who she describes as now being "good strong gentleman with families of their own." Most devastatingly, though, Walter pulls back from his approaches to the young girl, Robin, when she reveals that her father has been molesting her. He tells Robin to "go home," but there is no sanctuary there. Unlike the Woodsman saving Red Riding Hood from the Wolf, in saving Robin from himself, Walter does not grant her safety. There are no woodsmen in this world.   

In following these themes, the film questions the very basis of social policy towards sex offending. It exposes the diversity of offending in the approaches taken by perpetrators and in the risk within the home. It questions the soundness of the stereotypical notion of "stranger danger." It also questions the effectiveness of social rejection and public shaming, which form part of today’s policies. It suggests that many public policies toward child sexual molestation may encourage complacency and increase the risk, rather than making us safer. Instead, the film suggests that a more open-minded and considered approach may create a safer world for our children by informing us of the real risks and the appropriate strategies for tackling them.

"You’d just be a dead piece of shit"
Empathy and the limits of tolerance

This film tries to build empathy with a difficult and damaged character, showing the complexity and torment of rehabilitation. However, it also confronts the viewer with the limits of their tolerance.

Walter is the hub of the film and central to this is his personal battle to change despite the temptations and the difficulties he faces. He asks, "Will I ever be normal?" For him,

"Normal is when I can be near to a girl even talk to a girl and not think about…that’s my idea of normal."

However, following his release, he continues to fantasize about young girls whom he sees and is momentarily drawn to follow or try to talk to them. His mind becomes frenzied and delirious as the battle between desire and resistance rages inside. His counsellor tries to put this turmoil in context, by reminding him that, "by going round in circles, we find things we missed first time around." The film's therapy sessions serve to explain to both Walter and the viewer that the urges that led Walter to offend will not disappear, but he will have to, day-by-day, learn to control them.

This struggle is played out in two parallel and contrasting storylines that build a metaphor for Walter’s state of mind. The first is his developing but ultimately resisted relationship with the girl Robin. Here he comes face-to-face with his desires, but he survives. The second storyline deals with the predatory rapist, Candy, whom Walter observes around the local school and who eventually tempts a young boy into his car, using techniques well known to Walter. Following his near-miss with Robin, Walter confronts Candy, who has just returned to the school with the boy he has just abused. Walter attacks the man and viciously beats him, seeing himself reflected in the face of Candy. The scene plays out as if Walter were physically fighting his own demons, and on this occasion winning.

Although the film builds empathy with the character of Walter, it also confronts the viewer with the appalling nature of his crimes, challenging the limits of our tolerance. In one scene, he turns on his brother-in-law, Carlos, challenging Carlos' attempts to befriend him as superficial and insincere. He challenges Carlos, asking Carlos if he has ever had sexual thoughts about his own daughter. Carlos reacts predictably by punching Walter, but ultimately, he still plays a role in trying to maintain the rebuild the relationship between Walter and his sister, escorting her to an unsuccessful meeting with Walter at the film’s close. Like Carlos, viewers are invited to see beyond their initial revulsion and look at the whole person. Walter's characterization provides a moral fulcrum in the same way as Stanley Kubrick described that in A Clockwork Orange (1971):

"…when you reject the treatment of even a character as wicked as Alex the moral point is clear’ (Siskel 1972).

Despite this shocking confrontation between Walter and Carlos, the film still supports an inclusive approach and still sees the potential for redemption; the moral point is clear. The film builds empathy, or rather challenges the viewer to feel empathy for Walter. This is not easy and the limits of tolerance are explored. Nevertheless, the film maintains a clear moral standpoint about our attitudes and approach to sex offenders.

"There are no woodsmen in this world"
Conclusion

Sergeant Lucas’s mournful conclusion, "There are no fucking woodsmen in this world," shows the limits of the community in protecting children. There are no easy answers. While punitive supervision and social rejection are natural reactions, they do not offer a solution, and may indeed make things worse. However, an inclusive approach goes against our instinctive feelings and challenges us at the deepest emotional level.

The film does not suggest that the road ahead is easy. Indeed, it makes it clear that dealing with childhood sexual offense and offenders is traumatic and fraught with dangers. However, the film’s success lies in the fact that it has the courage to create a space for measured reflection on the issue of managing sex offenders in the community, away from the hysteria and panic of common representations. It builds empathy with a difficult, damaged character. It attempts to show the diversity of offending and the risks within the family as well as from strangers. It dramatizes critical issues in public policy and presents alternative approaches. It is for these qualities that reviewers have described the film as "brave" (Ide 2004) or "remarkable" (Johnston 2004).       

In going beyond the label of sex offenders as "the "hate figure of our time" (Thomas 2005) and exploring these complex and emotive social issues in a digestible, rational form, The Woodsman stands apart from the popular representations. Instead of misleading and fanning fears, it attempts to build knowledge and understanding. It has been argued that a more rational information campaign, like that used to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS, would be much more effective in offering protection to children (Mackenzie 1998, for example see Barnados 2005). This film has the potential to open up a more educative debate of this kind. It would therefore be tragic if its message were drowned in the cacophony of moral panic.

Continued: References


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The Woodsman: Full disclosure by Lesage and Kleinhans