Like its tortured antihero, The Woodsman is a film at war with the most problematic aspects of its own nature. The redemption jury is out on Walter Rossworth (Kevin Bacon), a convicted child molester trying to put some semblance of a normal life together after serving a 12-year prison sentence. But the movie, at least, wins most of its battles.
Adapted by director/writer Nicole Kassell and writer Steven Fechter from Fechter's stage play, the movie finds Walter navigating the difficult period post-release, putting his all into a humble lumberyard job while living in a shoe-box apartment located a tantalizing 320 feet from the nearest elementary school. Is Walter recovered or isn't he? That's the question at the heart of Fechter's intimate story, which uses ominous voice-overs and observed therapy sessions to explore the tragic possibility that, after more than a decade of "correction," the character may harbor a lingering (and incurable?) attraction to forbidden fruit. As an added "in" to Walter's complicated psyche, Fechter has him fall into a confessional relationship with the tough-talking Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick), a co-worker with sex problems a few degrees less severe than his.
The script is too intelligent to demonize Walter, but neither are its authors on a bleeding-heart crusade to excuse his behavior. The most they're willing to do is contextualize it, as when they subject Walter to the scrutiny of a nosy co-worker (Eve) and an accusatory police sergeant (Mos Def). As the latter two attempt to "protect" their community from the likes of Walter, they prove that they may be every bit the predators he was (or is).
Turning theater into cinema is always a sticky business, but it's a business The Woodsman knows well. Just enough scenes are set in Walter's apartment to convey the idea that he's a prisoner inside himself, yet the movie never crosses the line into claustrophobia. (Kassell, a first-time feature filmmaker, fares far better at maintaining the motion of a dialogue-driven piece than the venerable Mike Nichols did in Closer.) The film's only real failure is its climax, which focuses Walter's attention on a second pedophile who may be working the neighborhood and in so doing floats the self-defeating implication that vigilantism cleans consciences and the streets with equal efficiency. Taking the law into one's own hands is certainly cathartic, and it lends the veneer of resolution to a story that would otherwise be hard-pressed to find one. But the film would carry more moral weight if it respected the essential conceptual distance between a woodsman and a Spider-Man.