Walter (a restrained, insular Kevin Bacon) has just been released from a 12-year prison stint for pedophilia. Cautiously adjusting to his new life on the outside, Walter struggles to handle his unfortunate apartment location (overlooking an elementary school), a new love (Kyra Sedgwick), a job where the employees (David Allen Grier, Eve) question his past, a cop (Mos Def, “The Italian Job”) who is relentless his in observance of Walter’s daily life, and his own dangerous sexual feelings, which rise to the forefront when he befriends a young girl (Hannah Pilkes) in a park.
“The Woodsman” has “Class of Sundance 2004” written all over. With a heady subject matter, low-tech, grainy production values, and a cast pocked with A and B list stars, this is a production that reeks of prototypical independent cinema, an equally admirable and woeful quality to have. “The Woodsman” is an original creation, but a faintly unremarkable motion picture.
Credit must be paid to writer/director Nicole Kassell (adapting the play by Steven Fechter) for taking on the subject of pedophilia in a manner that doesn’t have the fringes of a Lifetime movie or an Oprah special. “Woodsman” is an empathetic look at an offender’s place in society and difficult rehabilitation of his mind, not cutting many corners when it depicts the aggressive distaste some people find themselves feeling around Walter. If not a particularly engaging film, “Woodsman” is a fascinating one, delving into dark regions of human reaction to an utterly despicable figure. With the central idea, Kassell is confident in her portrayal of Walter’s torment, as he attempts to rebuild his life, cope with his first taste of adult sexuality in some time, and his desperation in trying to suppress old feelings toward the children he meets in everyday life (smartly realized by Bacon). There’s a great deal of turmoil to be mined here, and Kassell’s finds the right mood to keep Walter’s internal struggle gripping, yet not completely ick out the audience.
The narrative for “The Woodsman” is not nearly as strong as its emotions. The story starts out well enough, with Kassell introducing Walter as an unwilling observer of a local elementary school, building conflict quietly when Walter spies a potential pedophile working the area. While more conventional in design, this idea is ripe for exploration, which frustratingly never comes. “Woodsman” is a character film, allowing great leeway for the actors to find their roles and set the pace. This leaves the picture with an odd unfinished feel, made more perceptible by the film’s brief 80 minute running time and the plethora of name actors who are given very little to do. “Woodsman” is an interesting look into a fractured, tormented mind, yet it falls below the truly enveloping, harrowing experience the film unfortunately only hints at.Rating: C+