The Woodsman, with a very underrated performance from Kevin Bacon, is probably the first time I’ve ever – sorta – cheered for the – kinda – bad guy. Well, he’s a guy who committed a horrible crime, and he’s done bad things, but that doesn’t automatically make him a bad (pause) guy.
Walter was just released from a 12-year prison stint and is now a registered sex offender. Finding a job and a friend are difficult, but he manages to do both. He also manages to get an apartment across the street from a school, which – in New Jersey, at least – would never happen. Regardless, he’s working, trying to be responsible, seeing a therapist to avoid a repeat crime, and feeling the pressure of trying to fit in again. He doesn’t seem to expect to do well enough but instead seems doomed to be a constant imposition on the rest of the world. A nosy co-worker outs him, his past haunts him but not as much as a cop assigned to check on him. By “check on him,” I mean harass him.
The Woodsman suggests that pedophiles don’t want to be pedophiles, which I believe is true in most cases. It suggests that once a pedophile always a pedophile and that there may be redemptive moments, but there is never redemption nor rehabilitation, but there is a lot of guilt and anger at one’s self.
Kyra Sedgwick, Bacon’s real-life wife, plays a too-easily nailed girlfriend who is sympathetic to the new guy with kind words for her after she is harassed at work. She wasn’t “asking for it,” but she doesn’t mind it either. It might seem like a contradiction that she’d be offended by one guy making suggesting remarks but quickly jump in bed with the next guy, but it’s not a contradiction at all. It shows that she likes sex as much as anyone – but on her own terms, which is admirable. She accepts that men approach women like they’d approach a double cheeseburger, but she doesn’t always want to be a double cheeseburger. Sometimes she wants to be a soufflé. When she pushes Walter to reveal the dark secret that she knows he’s hiding, she’s strangely sympathetic. She doesn’t run away, as one might expect when one’s new boyfriend admits to molesting a pre-teen girl. Instead, he chases her away in order to reject her before she has a chance to reject him.
Walter battles the possibility that he’s never going to be “cured” or free from his compulsion. He knows that he’s got to control and reject the feelings when they strike him. He puts himself in a position of temptation, and that’s when I was cheering for the bad guy, but cheering for him to NOT be bad. One could say he’s testing himself. Another could say he’s losing his fight against his compulsion. It would spoil things to say what happens during his weak moments. It would spoil things more to say what happens when he sees another child molester stalking children in his neighborhood.
At only 90 minutes, The Woodsman is shorter than the average film with an above-average performance by Bacon and almost everyone else, especially the little girl named Robin whom he meets in the park as she watches birds. They strike a friendship that leads to the most intense moment of the film. She has no friends, and she watches birds because they like to be watched, as long as they know you’re not going to hurt them. It wouldn’t hurt anyone to watch The Woodsman.