After serving 12 years in prison, Walter (Kevin Bacon) returns to his hometown to build a new life. He lands a job at a local lumberyard, but only, his boss tells him, because "you did good work for my father." He embarks on a tentative romance with the resident tough broad Vickie (Bacon's real-life wife Kyra Sedgwick). His brother-in-law Carlos (Benjamin Bratt) helps him settle into his new apartment across the street from a grade school--because it's managed by the only landlady who would take his money. But soon, largely due to the meddling lumberyard secretary Mary-Kay (Eve), Walter's secret is out: He's a convicted pedophile, put away for molesting little girls.
Without excusing or demonizing what he's done, "The Woodsman" humanizes this predator and in a very real way depicts the world through his eyes. Temptation is everywhere--on the bus, at the mall--and soon Walter finds himself following and eventually befriending a young girl.
Granted, for a pedophile Walter as portrayed here is relatively innocuous. He wants to change, pleading with his therapist, "When will I be normal?" His inappropriate behavior onscreen is limited to inviting a young girl to sit on his lap, which falls in line with his rationalization that he never made them do anything they didn't want to. He even becomes the hero of the title from the "Little Red Riding Hood" fairy tale, attacking and brutally beating a man he witnesses preying on little boys in the schoolyard across the street. For this film to work as a story of recovery and forgiveness, it's necessary that we sympathize with Walter.
First-time writer/director Nicole Kassell achieves this by imbedding the viewer into Walter's state of mind with a script that's rife with dream sequences and emotionally charged scenes, such as when he reveals his indiscretions to Vickie for the first time, that are edited to be linearly disjointed. The film also has a cold, blue, grainy look that emulates the inhospitality that greets Walter upon his release.
But it's Bacon, overlooked at Oscar time while his "Mystic River" co-stars both took home statuettes, who ultimately gives Walter his humanity with a subtly textured performance. Bacon's never been better than when he's talking to a little girl who tells him that her daddy likes her to sit on his lap, too, that he moves and talks funny when she does, and that it upsets her. The understated shifts in Bacon's expression reveal that his character, perhaps for the first time, understands the casualties of his crime. Starring Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Benjamin Bratt, Mos Def, Eve, Michael Shannon and David Alan Grier. Directed by Nicole Kassell. Written by Nicole Kassell and Steven Fechter. Produced by Lee Daniels. A Newmarket release. Drama. Rated R for sexuality, disturbing behavior and language. Running time: 85 min