Kevin Bacon has played the preppie with a dark side so often that the moment you see his glum, impassive, aging-boy face in The Woodsman, you begin to ponder the bad thoughts he’s concealing. Bacon plays Walter, who has just served 12 years for the crime of molesting two young girls. He may be out of prison, but he’s still trapped — in himself. Bacon wraps this buttoned-up guilty man in a paranoid daze of angry silence, as if even the most casual conversation about who he is could incriminate him. The paranoia, of course, is justified.
Walter, a professional woodworker, lands a job in a lumberyard, where he’s not quite good enough at keeping his head down, and he finds a dingy apartment across the street from a grade-school playground, which allows the film’s director, Nicole Kasser, to stage moments like the one in which a red rubber ball comes bounding into the frame, an ominous reminder of the innocence Walter once destroyed. If you’re wondering how, and why, a convicted pedophile desperate to escape his past would possibly have ended up living this close to the temptation that all but ruined him…well, that’s one of many schematic contrivances that make The Woodsman a character study less tough, or convincing, than Bacon’s performance. (An even more jarring contrivance: Walter spies another pedophile haunting the school, seeing in him a projection of his own worst impulses.)
Kasser invites us to confront the humanity of a man whose actions have been monstrous. Can he be healed? Does he deserve to be healed? Those are intense questions for a movie to ask, but The Woodsman is too facile in its sympathy. Though it acknowledges that Walter must fight his demons all over again, it treats the steep recidivism rate of child molesters as if it were simply a statistic he had to overcome. The Woodsman is worth seeing for Bacon’s lived-in minimalist purgatory, but the movie soft-pedals the nature of the desires he’s at war with: the fact that they will never go away.