“I never hurt anyone,” says Walter, fresh out of prison after serving a 12-year term for child molestation. It’s his way of setting himself apart from the more vicious abusers, the rapists and murderers, but also a way of denying the emotional and psychological pain he’s inflicted. Walter (played by Kevin Bacon) isn’t someone who’s sinned and then been redeemed; he’s still struggling with his obsession, to an extent that he can’t bring himself to acknowledge.
First-time director Nicole Kassell and co-screenwriter Steven Fechter (who also wrote the play the film is based on) walk a fine line here by trying to arouse our empathy (though not sympathy) for Walter without downplaying the enormity of his crimes. Their efforts are greatly aided by a subtle and low-key performance by Bacon as a man who’s alternately tormented by self-loathing and determined to live a more or less normal life.
The movie begins on a sharply unrealistic note as the newly released Walter gets an apartment across the street from an elementary school — surely his parole officer would have nixed that. He gets a job at a lumberyard because the owner feels he owes a debt to Walter’s father. Although his sister refuses to see him, Walter’s brother-in-law, Carlos (Benjamin Bratt), frequently visits him in his dingy apartment. He’s also periodically visited by a policeman, Sgt. Lucas (Mos Def), who makes it clear that he thinks Walter is the scum of the earth. Sgt. Lucas is a stand-in for the viewers’ sense of moral outrage, but his own problems mitigate his position as a symbol of societal righteousness.
Walter enters into an affair with a co-worker, Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick), who knows he’s done time but doesn’t know what his crimes were. We have access to Walter’s inner struggles via his visits to a psychologist and a journal he keeps. When he begins to tentatively yield to his old demons, we hope he has the strength to overcome them. And when the worst is about to happen, it leads to an unexpected resolution, with Walter forced to confront the pain he’s caused in the past.
The Woodsman takes a character we would normally want to look away from and asks us to consider his plight. For some, that will be way too much to ask; for others it offers an engrossing drama, well-handled despite that major implausibility at its beginning.
Showing at the Maple Art Theatre (4135 W. Maple Rd., Bloomfield Hills); 248-263-2111.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].