The Woodsman wrangles with the issue of pedophilia and, in the process, raises a number of interesting and disturbing questions. Nevertheless, promising first-time feature filmmaker Nicole Kassell takes artistic and intellectual missteps which blunt the impact of her film.
Kevin Bacon plays Walter, a middle-aged pedophiliac parolee who winds up living 32 feet away from an elementary school (an incredible notion that's never justified). He's trying to leave his old lives behind and considering whether to begin a new life or slowly rot away in his lumberyard job and spartan apartment. Bacon's real-life wife Kyra Sedgwick plays Vicki, a co-worker who Walter an opportunity for sexual and personal redemption; Mos Def plays the parole officer waiting for Walter to screw up. The subtleties of interaction between Walter and Vicki—as well as Walter's brother-in-law Carlos—speak to how people gravitate to or recoil from people who reflect their own pain.
Meanwhile, Walter tentatively considers falling off the wagon, trailing a schoolgirl over the river and through the woods; complicating matters yet further, a homosexual pedophile begins working the street between the school and Walter's apartment. Though the confluence of events is overwrought, each challenge gives the finely tuned Bacon an opportunity to play mental and emotional torture. Mos Def is especially memorable; Sedgwick's hard-boiled character also serves well as a foil for Walter. Watching and being watched are prominent themes, underlined by the hard glares of Walter's parole officer and co-workers and by the shared P.O.V. of Walter's stalking.
The film's hard-edged realism sits uneasily with Kassell's symbolism and the dead-end fairy-tale allegory suggested by the title. When Walter imagines a red rubber ball bouncing out to him from the schoolyard—an invitation—its film student allusiveness to Fritz Lang's M is self-defeating. Kassell never allows any doubt that Walter should be sympathetic—the wolf who wants to be the woodsman—even as he risks losing his battle with his demons. "It's not what you think," Walter tells Vicki. "I never hurt them, never."
The film's most gripping scene, staged on a park bench, illuminates the mindsets of abuser (Walter) and victim (young Robin, played by Hannah Pilkes); in doing so, Kassell reminds us that most abusers, who sympathize with their victims, were once abused themselves. In scenes like this one, Bacon makes himself smaller, even feeble with guilt and discomfort; in other moments, his Walter recharges with what Kassell and Steven Fechter's screenplay (from Fechter's play) defines as healthy sex and violence; Walter's psychiatrist, though clever, can't give Walter what he needs.
Sympathy isn't the problem (despite the film's offensive, implied lack of sympathy for the homosexual predator); the problem is that the resolution of the emotionally complex story falls apart altogether, with a series of tidy third-act plot feints that place Walter walking the center line to redemption. Many will infer from Kassell's late-breaking, misleading uplift (accompanied by flocks of free-flying birds and Patti La Belle's version of "God's Eye Is On the Sparrow") that Bacon is "cured" by picture's end, a suggestion that's simplistic and unearned by what Kassell shows us. Still, The Woodsman deserves some credit for its performances and provocation.