Walter (Bacon) is a convicted paedophile who, on being released from prison, is rehoused a stone’s throw from an elementary school. Taking a job at a sawmill, he meets Vicky (Sedgwick), with whom he begins a relationship while coping with both the fear of being revealed and an aggressive supervising cop, Sergeant Lucas (Mos Def).
At first glance you’d be forgiven for wondering what it is with Kevin Bacon and child molesters. Not content with having pursued one as a cop in Mystic River and delivering an admirably unpleasant performance as a child rapist in Sleepers, he returns as yet another kiddie-fiddler in The Woodsman. But Bacon’s performance as Walter, a convicted paedophile just released from prison, is of an entirely different order. And early as it is to be making statements like this, it’s undoubtedly going to be one of the most impressive performances of the year, in one of 2005’s most courageous films.
We shouldn’t be too surprised: he has often been underrated — despite the Robbins/Penn fireworks it was Bacon’s performance that ran away with Mystic River. Here he shows much of that same quiet control. Walter is a study in agonised self-loathing, both aware of the horror of his desires and at times utterly and apparently helplessly in their grip.
An easy watch it certainly is not. Two sequences particularly — both moments in which Walter either deliberately or by accident winds up in temptation’s way
— are excruciating. And for some, the humanising of predatory sex offenders will veer too close to becoming an apologia (it isn’t here). In fact, in numerous Hollywood films paedophiles have become cinematic shorthand for pure, near-pantomimic evil; screenwriters need spend no time or effort exploring their characters, they simply serve plot. It’s convenient and lazy and The Woodsman is a much-needed corrective.
If there is a slight failing, it’s that the screenplay, possibly inevitably, backs off slightly towards the end, delivering if not a flat-packed farrago of redemption and forgiveness, something which nods far enough in that direction to suggest that the possibly more likely outcome would be just too much for audiences to bear.
Nicole Kassell directs her debut with the necessary understatement and support is good from both Kyra Sedgwick and Mos Def as a hostile cop. But it’s Bacon’s astonishing performance — in the midst of what, for the last two decades or so, has become a kind of persistent public hysteria — that is a quiet, challenging and ultimately discomfortingly human voice.