It's kind of a shame that all the publicity and press for The Woodsman reveals the Bacon character's horrible secret, as the movie doesn't give away the game for at least 20 minutes. But you could probably figure it out anyway, what with the pained shots panning by a schoolyard and Bacon's hushed, sunkeneyed demeanor
His Walter has recently been released following a 12 year stint in jail for molesting 10 to 12 year old girls. He's now returned to the Philadelphia neighborhood of his youth, to attempt a reconciliation with his sister and her family (including her husband, played by Benjamin Bratt in the film's least inspired performance). The remarkably kind Bob (David Alan Grier) hires him at a lumber yard, which is where Walter's life gets both more complicated and more tolerable.
Complicated because secretary Mary-Kay (Eve, in her strongest performance to date) has found out his dark secret. And tolerable because of his blossoming romance with the steely yet sensitive Vickie (Bacon's real-life wife Kyra Sedgwick). As if this weren't enough to contend with, Walter must face-off against the rightfully suspicious Sgt. Lucas (Mos Def), and deal with his continued depraved urges and sexual desires.
And this is why the film is so difficult. Though any discussion of pedophilia is bound to cause some discomfort in the viewer, The Woodsman refuses to pull any punches whatsoever. Though we're repulsed by Walter's urges, he seems to be as well, and the strength of Bacon's performance is in his realization of this dichotomy - he plays a man torn between fulfilling his bizarre compulsions and living the life he desperately wants. He cannot have it both ways, and you get the sense that neither solution will provide him with the kind of ultimate happiness and satisfaction most "normal" people strive for.
As well, the script by Steven Fetcher (based on his play) and director Nicole Kassell staunchly refuses to provide us with an antagonist. At times, Walter's behavior makes us detest him, or at the very least mistrust him. A long sequence set in a park, in which Walter loses his willpower and sparks a somewhat risque dialogue with a young girl, becomes increasingly nauseating and repulsive as it continues. It's one of the bravest scenes from any film in recent memory, refusing to let the main character off the hook or reduce his disease to simplistic, easily-digestible terms. But Bacon's performance is too nuanced and open to make Walter into any kind of conventional villain. "I'm not a monster," he growls to his brother-in-law, and by that point in the film, we've been allowed enough access to his inner struggles to agree.
But Fetcher and Kassell aren't merely content to sympathize with Walter. The bulk of the film's thankfully brief running time (thankfully because viewing the movie can be such a wrenching experience) is spent exploring the behavior and reactions of those around Walter. Mos Def's Sgt. Lucas torments him with his crimes, and hounds him into submission, but when he speaks about discovering the body of a sodomized young girl, we understand his motives. We know that there's a good chance a man like Walter will never recover from this problem, will never freely live around children without wanting to harm them. Even Walter knows this. So, in some way, it's a relief that policemen like Lucas exist to antagonize pedophiles.
And this sort of ambiguity and uncertainty runs throughout the entire film. I found it refreshing to see a movie so honest as to admit it has no answers. Can Walter ever defeat his demons and live a normal life? He asks these questions of his therapist in the film, and does not get any sort of definitive answer, and neither does the viewer. Kassell's sympathetic direction never once becomes manipulative or moralistic, preferring to observe rather than comment. And this makes The Woodsman complex, difficult and ultimately extremely worthwhile.
I preferred it to Happiness, Todd Solondz' 1998 examination of a suburban pedophile, wonderfully played in that film by Dylan Baker. Solondz' depiction is darkly comic, turning the pedophile character into a typically bumbling sitcom dad, just with an extremely twisted side. The Woodsman doesn't use comedy or sarcasm to lessen the impact of its harsh reality, and though this makes it more challenging to enjoy, it's ultimately a more rewarding experience.
It's interesting to me that a female director making her feature debut has crafted such a believable portrait of male desire. She understands that, for Walter, what he does with young girls has become compartmentalized. It is not his entire personality, and he does not love these girls in a traditional sense. It is a thing he likes to do to fulfill a certain sexual impulse, but the rest of his personality remains intact. This is why he's not a monster, and when we get insight into the man he used to be (such as the fact that he built furniture, or probably had a good sense of humor), we root for him to conquer his vile impulses.
This adds an extra element of horror to the scenes where Walter slips. The dialogue becomes multi-layered - we hope these children escape Walter's clutches both for their sake and for his. Compare this to other films about children in peril, and it becomes clear that Bacon and Kassell have crafted something truly special, a film that speaks for the humanity of every person alive, no matter what evil atrocities they may have committed.
If I had not already published a Top Movies of the Year list, this would likely be a candidate. Certainly it would belong in the Honorable Mention pile.