Scene analysis: The Woodsman - empathy done right.
Scene analysis: The Woodsman - empathy done right.
“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.
The 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 - with urges he continually fights to control make him a rather unsympathetic character. His inner turmoil often results in a curt and abrasive outward persona towards others and doesn't help his cause, either.
Yet, in the midst of all we can't help but let the film's dramatic question draw us in: will Walter succumb to his desires again? This, despite a host of his undesirable traits causing a level of discomfort with the viewer, is not an easy task for a writer.
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 those techniques are present in The Woodsman and utilized to show what Walter is up against in his quest for redemption:
Having just been released from prison, Walter finds himself in a job with a thankless boss. The only reason why Walter got the job is because of the good work he did for his boss's 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."
This one may depend on the individual viewer and their own perceptions of justice.
Despite the anger Walter harbors within, we get a sense of where some of it comes from. Once the cat is out of the bag, certain people - even the Sergeant assigned to check in on him - seem intent on watching Walter fail.
These people may come off as having questionable morals and perhaps more negative traits than Walter himself. Their actions are immediate so we have an opportunity to witness and feel them whereas Walter's actions happened years ago. The audience is never privy to them and the impact is diminished somewhat despite its impact.
What makes this tilt empathy slightly to Walter is--
The fact is, Walter is making an effort to change. He has uncomfortable exchanges with a workplace fling in Vicki (played by real-life wife Kyra Sedgwick), the Sgt. assigned to look over him, co-workers, a brother-in-law and a therapist. Most of the conflict a result of Walter's own demons, but he never chooses to succumb to them completely - giving us some hope he'll find redemption.
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.
There's also a sense that Walter is willing to suffer in silence than have a negative impact on another's life. With Vicki, Walter 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.
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. In short, Walter knows his short-comings and understands why people won't accept him. This level of self-awareness ultimately 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 him in return.
None of these make Walter "likable" the least bit, but they do provide us with the context to understand him in. 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. However, 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. She excuses herself, noting her father likes her home before dark.
This, of course, is merely set up. 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 - rather 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. They never have to see the everlasting effects manifest upon their victims. Naturally this is Walter's perspective - one that's challenged when he's actually confronted with a victim and witnesses 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 Walter's 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 make a connection. To understand. To empathize.
Robin, however, battles her own inner feelings and clams up. She gazes 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 shakes as he reaches a level of self-awareness that begins to shift his perspective - but then the unthinkable happens.
While Walter looks away in shame, Robin stares at him with her own level of empathy. Despite the pain it's caused her, she becomes selfless and offers herself up to him. Walter declines, unable to indulge his demons any longer after seeing the pain of another.
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.