For sheer guts alone, one has to applaud the makers of The Woodsman, who must have suffered ear damage from all the doors slamming in their faces when they went around trying to get the film made. "Well, you see, it's about this pedophile..." Although guts won't get you everywhere, and they're no substitute for having something to back it up, the courage apparent in The Woodsman's balanced and humane story of monstrous behavior helps it skate over more than a few thinly scripted passages.
Simply put, Walter (Kevin Bacon) is back in town after serving a 12-year stretch for molesting young girls. He gets a job at a lumberyard where the manager (David Alan Grier, in a rare yet welcome stab at dramatic acting) makes it clear that he only hired Walter due to a family favor. Antisocial to a fault, Walter goes about his work with sullen determination, retreating to his depressing apartment to share the occasional beer with his brother-in-law, Carlos (Benjamin Bratt), the only family member who will even speak to him. Walter goes to a therapist who tries, without much success, to get him to dig a little deeper and to deal with his problem. In the meantime, Walter tries not to stare at the pre-teen schoolgirls who ride the bus he takes to work, and stares sullenly out his window at the schoolyard across the street ("the only landlord in town who'll take my money" he remarks to Carlos's bafflement at his suspicious choice of living quarters).
The Woodsman circles around the grim, pounding questions at its core (What did he do? Is he going to do it again?) without being overly coy, and doesn't waste too much time before giving Walter a tough and troubled girlfriend, Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick), to whom he can admit that he molested girls as young as 9 years old. The film's unenviable task is to understand Walter, to figure out if he is indeed the dangerous freak that he's considered to be by most everyone in the film, especially the police detective (played with finesse by the increasingly agile Mos Def) who harasses Walter, reminding him that he could toss him right out the window to his death, and nobody would mind one bit. And fortunately, the film never tries overly hard to evoke sympathy for Walter, the poor, benighted, suffering criminal trying to mend his ways. This is no angelically repenting sinner, as we see in scene after scene of Walter's pinched, jaw-clenched face as he tries to bottle in the urges from within - this is a man who knows he has done horrendous things, and may not be able to stop from doing them again. And when Walter finally gets off the bus to follow a girl into the woods, the cold, pounding dread could make you tear the armrests right off your chair.
Walter sees his condition everywhere, watching a pedophile outside his window, seeming to think that Carlos has an unnaturally close relationship with his 12-year-old daughter, and it seems like he's justifying his own sickness, that maybe he's rationalizing his own desires by imagining that he simply acted on impulses that other men keep buried. But then you start to wonder, maybe Carlos does talk about his daughter a little too much, and what if all these people in the film who hate Walter so much, maybe they hold similar thoughts deep inside and resent him for reminding them of it. It's the sign of a skillful director that you would even start to think such things, that the film could have such a disturbing main character - more disturbing than all the charismatic serial killers and hitmen that populate our films and whose cynical savagery we so often applaud - at its core without shoving us to either despise or sympathize with him.
The Woodsman loses some of its dark fairy-tale quality towards the end, injecting a few false-seeming notes of heroism that don't quite mesh with rest of the film's hard-nosed and realistic point of view. But regardless, this film stands out in a season of mushy emoting, looking long and hard at the unthinkable, hardly blinking.
The DVD adds a few deleted scenes, commentary track, and a "getting it made" featurette -- which, you can imagine, wasn't easy.