Films on subjects that make us sick to the stomach aren't easy to watch, but then spinach doesn't taste like sorbet either
I was asked, recently, to view two films – David Schwimmer's “Trust” and Nicole Kassell's “The Woodsman” – that dealt, in their own ways, with the very troubling reality of child sexual abuse, troubling to watch, definitely, but also to screen for an audience. The authorities that govern these matters, those gods of small things, needed letters from critics and other people associated with the movie industry stating that these films carried no objectionable content and could therefore be screened before a public weaned on movies where the heroines routinely wore white saris thin as tissue paper and positioned themselves under drooling rain machines.
In contrast, “Trust” and “The Woodsman” only sound horrifying. We don't actually see anything objectionable except in the mind's eye, which is actually worse because the many individually imagined horrors twine into a stout whiplash. That, of course, is the point.
But this queasiness on the part of the authorities isn't surprising, perhaps even understandable – there are children involved, and even our most perverse filmmakers haven't ventured into that minefield. It's one thing to sneak sex into wholesome family films, and entirely another to make a film about sex, the worst kind of sex. This is the other troubling reality – who'd want to watch these films?
Why would anyone, even the kind of popcorn-averse viewer inclined towards difficult dramas about homosexual priests or Jews under Hitler, propel himself to the theatre to experience, in “Trust,” a teenaged girl's loss of innocence at the bear-hands of a married, middle-aged man, and her father's subsequent anguish, his helplessness, at not being able to protect his little girl? The performances are so transparent, so revelatory, especially by the girl and the father (Liana Liberato and Clive Owen) that the screen – the small screen, in my case – seems to melt away. We're inside these lives, and that's a terrible place to be.
“The Woodsman” pulls off the not-insignificant feat of being far more troubling. At least in “Trust,” the targets of our love-hate responses are clearly aligned – we want the girl to return to normalcy, to the extent she can, and we want the molester to time-travel back to a certain period in France so that his private parts can come under the guillotine. Victim and victimiser couldn't be more explicitly demarcated if the director, the former Ross Geller from “Friends,” gave the girl wings and a halo and the man a pitchfork and a pair of horns.
But in “The Woodsman,” the molester is the victim, and he's played by Kevin Bacon, an actor we've had a long relationship with, an actor we like seeing on screen. The film, therefore, divides us into the half that hates what the character has done (sitting on a park bench eyeing little girls with bad intent, like in the Jethro Tull song) and the half that wants good things to happen to him, nevertheless, because he's played by this good actor.
“The Woodsman” isn't all that it could have been, but by complicating our emotions, the film reflects the complications of life. “Trust,” too, refuses to take the easy way out by making the victim a sacred lamb. Like any adolescent, the girl is curious about sex to an extent that shocks her father. It's no surprise, then, that neither film made a dent at the box office, despite decent reviews. But perhaps those who did not want to subject themselves to this unpleasantness in theatres, at the end of a workday's toil, will discover these films in private screenings or in the privacy of their homes, and expose themselves to the dangers that lurk around their young children. They need to. You can choose not to look at something dirty and ugly, but that doesn't mean it isn't there or that you can wish it away, like in a fairy tale, and live happily ever after.