Walter (Kevin Bacon) lives in a world perpetually gray. This much is revealed in the first frames of Nicole Kassell’s The Woodsman, which show his transport from prison, where he’s just completed a 12 year sentence, to Philadelphia. What little sky you see appears through windows — the bus, his small apartment, the lumberyard where he finds work.
Looking isolated in the lunchroom, Walter’s approached by the yard’s receptionist, Mary-Kay (Eve), he retreats. Days later, she spots him trying to speak with a coworker, Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick), whom he’s seen rebuff harassment by guys in hardhats. Though she says nothing, Mary-Kay is primed for some sort of reprisal, as she (and you) might read his choice of affiliations as race-based.
As it turns out, Walter’s choices are more complicated than they appear. When he begins an affair with Vickie, he confesses that he served time for molesting little girls (“It’s not what you think,” he says, “I never hurt them,” suggesting that he’s not yet realized what “hurt” can mean). Initially shocked and repulsed, Vickie then reconciles, admitting that she was abused by her brothers. And so begins a pattern of revelation — most everyone in Walter’s sphere is a victim or perpetrator of child abuse — that makes The Woodsman simultaneously contrived and disquieting.
Vickie’s efforts to draw out Walter are only the most obvious device for granting access to his thinking (Bacon is excellent, at once tense, withdrawn, and vulnerable, difficult. He also sees a court-appointed shrink, who advises him to keep a journal, in which he considers his guilt by writing about another molester; oddly, the only apartment Walter can find looks out on an elementary school yard. He names the man (Kevin Rice) “Candy” for his obvious strategy to win his victims’ trust. (The fact that Candy approaches young boys and not girls, like Walter, might make him “worse,” along some traditional continuum of evil/affliction, but the film doesn’t explore this problem.)
Walter’s narration of Candy’s activities exposes his understanding and disgust, but also, subtly, his titillation. As Candy’s actions escalate, so does Walter’s own desire — mulling over Candy’s show, Walter spots a girl, Robin (Hannah Pilkes), on the bus; when he begins to follow and then speak to her, the film ratchets up your sense of dread. For a moment, he seems doomed to be a typical offender in Law & Order: SVU, pained but unable to help himself.
Walter’s struggle (projected onto Candy, and then acted out with Robin) is exacerbated by visits from two men, emblems as much as characters. His brother-in-law Carlos (Benjamin Bratt) endeavors not to judge Walter, but to invite him to reintegrate, even to reconcile with his angry and mostly off-screen sister (with whom Carlos has a young daughter). More intriguingly, Sergeant Lucas (the terrifically low-key Mos Def) essentially serves as Walter’s conscience, rattling him by snooping around his apartment and suggesting that he knows every time he observes Candy or speaks to Robin. As much as Walter appears willing to submit to such scrutiny — part of his ongoing, deserved punishment — he also resents that his life will never be “normal.”
This is the trouble, for Walter and for the film. There can be no “normal,” given his history or the community that both frames it and judges him. Co-written by Kassell and Steven Fechter, and based on his play, The Woodsman focuses on Walter’s efforts to rejoin a culture that rejects him, even as it has, in part, helped to shape his desires. The film turns in the end to an ineffective bit of melodrama to resolve at least some of its questions, but doesn’t quite take up the social or political contexts for Walter’s illness (a term of description he accepts, even though it doesn’t quite allow him to alleviate his sense of guilt).
If the subject matter is not in itself shocking, as its visible weekly on tv series and Court TV that demonize the offenders, The Woodsman‘s efforts not to pathologize Walter out of hand are admirable. Perhaps more interestingly, if less clearly worked out, is the film’s situation of Walter in a community of conventionally marginal figures, from his employer Bob (David Alan Grier) and the forklift-driving Vickie, to Carlos, Mary-Kay, and Lucas. Their differences from Walter and from one another make his world not quite movie-normal, but more real-lifeish normal. They’re trying to make their way in a hostile, ever gray world, where diurnal judgments are not just “black and white.”