Wood-chipper debate

A Manhattan-based journalist wrote me earlier today and suggested that Little Children‘s Jackie Earle Haley, who plays a profoundly creepy child molester/flasher, and Phyllis Somerville , who plays his caring, strong-willed mom, could both qualify as Best Supporting Actor nominees in their respective categories. “Both are terrific,” he enthused, “but I think Somerville’s portrait of a mother’s unconditional love is absolutely heart-breaking…just great work.”
Sommerville is wonderful, I agreed, but Haley’s sexual deviant is extremely icky. “Haley’s a fine actor and it’s good he’s back,” I responded, “but that character he plays…forget it.” The East Coast guy replied by saying “Icky is not bad, and in this case, icky is heartbreaking.”
And I said, “Because of this character, this movie is going to run into trouble with general audiences. Hearts are not going to be broken — some people are just going to be repulsed. There’s a scene in a car that happens between Haley and a nice lonely woman he’s met on a blind date, and after this scene any notion of compassion for Haley’s guy is out the window.”
My friend said, “The final beat in the arc of this character happens because of his shame at what he is. If that isn’t heartbreaking, I don’t know what is. Thanks for your compassion.” And I said, “Given what he is — a total sexual cockroach — and his behavior beforehand, what happens at the end, harsh as this may sound, isn’t that terrible a consequence. When it comes to child molesters, there’s a serious temptation to say ‘throw them into the wood chipper.'”
They don’t deserve sympathy? he asked. And I answered, “Do Catholic-priest molestors of choir boys deserve our sympathy? Do compulsive sexual abusers of any kind deserve it? I really don’t feel that way. There’s no real expectation in treatment circles that any of these guys have a chance of being cured. I’m with the right-wingers on this issue. They’re bad news. Shed no tears.”


    Kelly Leak finally gets his due.

  • JD

    It’s about time Wells acknowledged his latent conservatism. I have to agree with the other guy. Both performances are amazing. If the movie is well-recieved, they’re a lock for Oscar nominations, as is Kate Wilson and maybe even Patrick Wilson.
    By the way, the movie currently has an 8.9 rating at imdb. Not many people have voted yet (109), but this still seems like a sign that the consensus is skewing positive.

  • NYCBusybody

    Amen, Jeffrey. Don’t go too far right, now, I won’t have anything to rail against!
    To be sure, though, not ALL right-wingers are of the “throw them into the wood chipper” variety. Prison is just fine.

  • He’s not a child molester. The film goes out of its way to make the point that he went to jail for exposing himself to children, not touching them. In fact that distinction is part of a funny exchange at the beginning of the film between Kate Winslet and the mothers who want him castrated.

  • NYCBusybody

    The idea that one has to be a “latent conservative” to be disgusted and unsympathetic towards child molestors (or even exposers, a la Devin’s comment), speaks badly not of conservatives.
    I, of course, do not think all left-wingers aren’t disgusted by them. I’m sure most are.

  • To expose your genitals to young children is to push your way into their hearts and souls with a gross and heartless sexual advance. There’s a difference between a flasher and a deviant who touches children for sexual gratification, yes…but not that much of one.

  • Devin Faraci

    I don’t know, Jeff. I am sure any person who has been sexually molested would much rather have just been flashed. I’m not saying that flashing children isn’t bad, but sexually abusing children is VERY, VERY, VERY bad.

  • Brian

    Let’s remember that not long ago Jeff said that if someone is “broadening a student’s mind with profound teachings … copping a discreet feel is a forgivable impulse/indulgence.” I guess it’s nice of him to speak up for SOME victims of sexual abuse, anyway.

  • NYCBusybody

    Copping a discreet feel on an of-age coed who is perfectly able and willing to file a sexual harrassment lawsuit, or turn around and deck the guy, is quite different from an act on a defenseless (physically and psychologically) child.
    And yes, the forgivable impulse act would be, to my mind, sexual harassment (and something uncool and punishable), and not sexual abuse.

  • It would be sexual assault.

  • Hejla

    Having read the novel(but not seen the film), it seems like Todd Field went out of his way to change the story in order to try to make the Ronny character more sympathetic. The book doesn’t judge it’s character’s, but it presents them in a truthfull and honest way. It sounds like Fields tried to change that “truth.”
    Jeff, have you read the book?
    It would be interesting to hear what you had to say about how it compares given the significant changes Field made and what those changes reveal about Field’s intentions with the film in comparison to the book.

  • JD

    NYC, I wasn’t disagreeing (or agreeing) with Jeff, I was just highlighting this sentence: “I’m with the right-wingers on this issue.” Given that most of Jeff’s attitudes/temperament are conservative-esque — but he insists that he’s a liberal — I thought this rare acknowledgement was worth noting.
    And I don’t think Field tries too hard to make Ronny sympathetic. In fact, one of the things that interested me most about the film is his method of presenting a character unsympathetically, but still generating empathy for them. That’s very difficult and almost Kubrick-esque (ie. Barry Lyndon, A Clockwork Orange) and it seems like the most fair and truthful way to depict a character like Ronny. I mean, do we really need a director to emphasize that sexually assaulting children is bad? That aspect of the character/narrative kind of speaks for itself. But it’s still fascinating to see how his mother is affected by this and how he goes on with life after he has served his jail sentence and aged several years since the incident. Plus, if his illicit sexual impulses are completely out of control — as the movie suggests they are — shouldn’t we at least feel some pity (if not sympathy) for his affliction?
    By the way, I’m sorry I called Kate Winslet, Kate Wilson. Even if she was married to Patrick WIlson, that probably wouldn’t be her name. Won’t happen again.

  • JD

    that should read “out of his control”…

  • corey3rd

    For years I’ve declared Jackie Earle Haley as the greatest child actor of his generation and this year’s he’s going to get his due. And the best thing is that he doesn’t owe this moment to Quentin Tarantino.
    And his first major role, as the voice of the kid on “Wait Till Your Father Gets Home” can now be enjoyed on Boomerang at 3:30 a.m. Set your DVRs to hear his tonsils in action.

  • Wells to Brian: Here’s exactly what I said in that “History Boys” piece you quoted from….
    “In the film, Richard Griffiths (best known as Harry Potter’s mean-spirited Uncle Vernon) will repeat his Tony-winning stage performance as an eccentric history instructor in an English boys’ school who’s expected to prepare them as best he can for university entrance exams, but is forced to leave his post when the school’s headmaster learns about his erotic fondling of some of the students.
    “There’s a longstanding homoerotic tradition in dramas about English schoolboys and boarding schools (reflections of this were in Lindsay Anderson’s “If”) and it’s certainly no big deal to X-factor types.
    “The idea seems to be” — i.e., THE IDEA IN THE PLAY SEEMS TO BE — “if you’re broadening a student’s mind with profound teachings (as Griffith’s History character certainly does), copping a discreet feel is a forgivable impulse/indulgence, but it’s a different story if you’re a priest passing along repressive Catholic dogma.”
    The URL for this piece: http://hollywood-elsewhere.com/archives/2006/08/history_hesitat.php

  • Hejla

    “Plus, if his illicit sexual impulses are completely out of his control — as the movie suggests they are — shouldn’t we at least feel some pity (if not sympathy) for his affliction?”
    I think that’s where the film differs greatly from the book imo. The book didn’t victimize Ronny by presenting it as something ‘out of his control,’ in fact it seemed to emphasize choice a lot, particularly towards the end.
    Again, I haven’t seen the film, so I can’t really compare them. But it’s obvious that some pretty big changes have been made with the character of Ronny.

  • rr3333

    Way to go Moocher! Welcome Back!

  • Dixon Steele

    These posts reminded me of when I was a teen in suburban NY.
    My father was a lawyer and one of his clients was a “flasher”.
    Unlike the creepy character from LITTLE CHILDREN, this guy looked like the Dad Next Door, and was in fact married with kids.
    My father told me the guy seemed like a “nice guy” and finally one day asked him why he did what he did (it wasn’t the first time).
    The flasher told him that he had no idea why and that “something” would come over him that he had no control over and he’d find himself exposing himself to minors. He knew he was sick and it had ruined his life (and his family’s), it was horrible and unforgivable, but he just couldn’t help himself.

  • thatmovieguy

    Hejla: The film is quite faithful to the book (even lifting large passages of dialogue verbatim), right up until the last 10 minutes. (Since you haven’t seen the film, I won’t go into detail about what’s been changed, but it’s significant.) For most of the film, Ronnie is not terribly different on the screen than he was in the novel. The point of the story is still that these greatly flawed but “respectable” suburbanites target Ronnie as a threat to their community while trying to ignore their own moral slips (hostility toward their own families, coldness toward their children, lying and sneaking around at just about every opportunity, using passive-aggressive power plays on each other, etc.). Most of the neighbors are so caught up in fighting the evil intruder that they don’t pay any attention to the threats in their own homes and hearts.

  • L.B.

    I’m just glad this conversation is taking place because it means Jackie Earle Haley is back on the map. It would be great to see him move from the “where is he now” column to the “landed a juicy role in a major film” column. Always great to see an old favorite get back in the game in a big way, nomination or no nomination.

  • CamilleD

    The New York Times copped out on this one- or is it they don’t really have the balls to dare to take the high ground on Little Children’s actual content? The love story between Winslett and Wilson is erotic and dreamy- you can’t take your eyes off their gorgeous bodies and wistful glances- but juxtapositioned against Haley’s “child molester” (the quotes are for people who like to debate whether flashing isn’t molestation in the eyes of a child) We are forced to watch a young girl’s horror, trapped in a car and her life threatened by him, as he forces her to watch him jerk off in front of her. This scene is so bleak, so repulsive and so insidious that it makes you feel like getting sick. A.O. Scott is a pussy for not stepping up to the plate and telling us what really to expect from this film- shot and acted beautifully- and repulsive as a movie going experience.

  • Abbey Normal

    Jesus, people. I just saw Little Children and found this comment thread off a Google search.
    Nobody here seems to understand that child molesters are sick, not evil. As much as people with societally sanctioned urges like to believe, desires CANNOT be controlled. It is through no fault of their own that sexual deviants are the way they are. Almost always, the abusers were once the abused. They are part of a classic vicious cycle and deserve sympathy, not blind rage and “just cut it off” type statements.
    It’s a societal problem that won’t go away just because the punishments become more severe. These people can’t stop themselves. True, treatment is elusive right now, but the science is still evolving. With time, better drugs and treatment methods will be available. It should be thought of as a disease, but this kind of ignorant bullshit muddies up the political environment and complicates scientific funding decisions. Ironically, people advocating stiffer penalties and ignoring the treatment option actually worsen the problem, perpetuating a system where sexual deviants don’t get the help they need, going on to abuse and create more abusers.
    If you really want to solve the problem, put away your disgust and do something productive by supporting better funding for treatment programs. And educate your kids about sex EARLY to prepare them for this possibility, so they’ll know that if something like this happens it’s not their fault.