"The Woodsman" asks us to understand the heart of a flawed but reclaimable human being.
The title "The Woodsman" is an allusion to Little Red Riding Hood's extraction from the wolf's stomach by a woodsman. No need to explain that the film is about a convicted molester of young girls (about 11 and 12), Walter (Kevin Bacon), who is attempting to live anonymously in working-class Philadelphia. Not only does first-time writer/director Nicole Kassell succeed in conveying the loneliness of the outcast, but she also treats the subject with the respect a decent person who has done time deserves. Walter cries out to his therapist, "When will I be normal?"
Forty three years ago, Sundays and Cybelle showed how an innocent man befriending a 12 year old girl can lose his life to suspecting adults, and four years ago L.I.E. revealed a goodness at the core of a pedophile played by Brian Cox. In both cases, the filmmakers seem devoted to stopping knee-jerk reactions to molesters by questioning our ability to know their hearts. Kassell does more by complicating her hero with yearnings to revisit his passion and restraint when faced with the opportunity. Her precise observations about the cruelty daily visited on those who have paid their debt and may no longer pose a threat is a strength of this little but powerful film.
Helping to humanize the demonized ex-con is Bacon's real-life wife, Kyra Sedgwick, as Vicki, a tough co-worker who sees goodness where others see threat. At no time is Vicki a sucker for a boyish face or a moralist passing judgment; she is a kind person as conflicted as most people over the desire to condemn and the impulse to give another chance. Walter's sister may never forgive Walter, and Sgt. Lucas (Mos Def), the parole officer who dogs Walter's every move, will never. The slightly exaggerated reactions of these two characters keep this film from the perfection it courts.
In Ohio, although state law prohibits sex offenders from living within 1000 feet of a school, police are not provided the power to enforce the law. At one point in the film, Walter is counting paces to the gate of the schoolyard, which is improbably across the street from his window. "The Woodsman" itself has a measured pace, helped in no small part by Bacon's muted, wounded persona, which should be acknowledged at Oscar time but may not be, given the sensitive nature of the subject and society's uncertainty about how to deal with pedophiles.
Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who counseled that the true good is not in things but in oneself, commented ominously about the allure of children: "Who is there whom bright and agreeable children do not attract to play and creep and prattle with them?" "The Woodsman" asks us to understand the heart of a flawed but reclaimable human being.