No topic can summon a torch-bearing mob quite so swiftly as pedophilia, but Nicole Kassell’s ambitious debut feature absorbs a subject that ordinarily dissolves rationality on contact into an engrossing study of a protagonist who variously inspires pity, clinical interest, fondness, and revulsion—sometimes all at once. At The Woodsman‘s outset, Walter (Kevin Bacon) has just completed a 12-year stint in prison, whereupon he starts a job in a Philadelphia lumberyard and moves into a dingy apartment across the street from a primary school, of all things. His family has disowned him, except for his joshy brother-in-law (Benjamin Bratt), whose friendly drop-ins carry a sting of condescension and self-congratulation.
Stone-faced, monotone Walter seems to have all but foresworn ordinary social interaction, which affronts a nosy secretary (Eve); he eventually lets his guard down halfway for the frank overtures of co-worker Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick), but feels obliged to utter a doozy of a deal-breaker: “I molested little girls.” (But “I never hurt them.”) His tenuous use of the past tense is critical to The Woodsman‘s central inquiry: Can the scorpion change his nature? Or, as the impatient Walter puts it to his therapist, “When will I be normal?” The film frames the question as one of both essence and perception: Walter’s biggest enemy is himself, but other threats to his equilibrium abound—a workplace lynch gang lies in wait, and a local police sergeant (an excellent Mos Def) taunts the ex-con with bluesy, sinuous riffs on monsters and their innocent plunder.
Nathan Larson’s soundtrack, a burble of beepy noodlings and underwater gurgles, and the subjective sound design often immerse The Woodsman in Walter’s skewed brainscape, while the jagged, character-driven rhythms and multigrain visual textures pay homage to the ’70s American golden age (a tribute that more strongly evokes fellow ’00s genuflectors like Monster’s Ball and Love Liza). The pileup of self-conscious referencing—The Getaway, Five Easy Pieces, Don’t Look Now—amounts to an unwelcome distancing effect. Kassell unaccountably skips over Walter’s learning curve in re-entering the outside world and mostly elides the dozen missing years, and the lack of context reinforces the seal on this hermetic milieu. A paroxysm of final-act catharsis inadvertently mimics a crucial turn in Mystic River, and why have the authorities given this guy box seats at a kids’ playground, anyway?
The film shores up, however, the eclectic strengths of its performers, especially Bacon. Kassell rightly showcases her exemplary star (and executive producer), in one scene holding on his face for several riveting minutes while Walter stammers out an apparently innocent childhood memory, now retrospectively tainted by his adult predations. The actor composes an achingly subtle physical biography of a badly damaged man, a balled fist of shame, resentment, and desperate reflexes who flinches away from most human contact but can find little solace inside his mutinous mind. When Walter’s resolve cracks and he follows a literal little-red-riding-hood into a park, the most chilling element of the episode lies in how he suddenly becomes, to the naked eye, a functional person. He smiles, makes eye contact; his voice finds new notes and modulations. Blood pumps stronger, the lungs expand, the big bad wolf takes a gulp of fresh air and shows his fangs.