Pedophilia is awful and wrong and monstrous and evil and the worst, most despicable act a human being can engage in. I think most of us agree on that. The Woodsman agrees with that as well, but it also dares to ask the question, aren’t pedophiles people, too?
The Woodsman stars Kevin Bacon as Walter, a child molester, recently released from prison, attempting to adjust to a normal life and possibly cure himself. It’s a short movie, and very focused on those two things. On the one side he gets a job at a lumber yard and through that gets a girlfriend. On the other side he is seeing a psychologist and trying to work through whether there is any hope for change from within.
The film is quite powerful in the way that it doesn’t make outright judgements about the character, instead allowing Kevin Bacon and his amazing performance to breathe humanity into him. What we see in him is not a monster, but a man, drawn to young girls and prone to committing heinous crimes. He knows that what he does is wrong in the eyes of society—even though he does try to justify his actions with the classic “they want it, too”—and unlike some truly far-gone psychopaths he wants to change because he values the normalcy associated with being a part of society.
But there is one point where I think the movie fails itself a little. It’s actually quite a good scene, with some wonderful acting and a powerful realization, but it feels forced, a little too contrived for the sake of catharsis, and that undermines what the film is otherwise trying to do. In the scene, Walter is attempting to get close to a young girl after speaking to her for a little while. Through doing that he comes to understand that the girl has been touched inappropriately by her own father. The tears streaming down her face, the pain in her eyes, and her eventual submission all coalesce to finally show Walter the true results of his actions. At that point Walter might not be “cured”, but for the first time he is actually properly disgusted with himself, giving him a much stronger motivation to change.
The problem with the scene is that the entire hopeful ending of the film rides on it, but the situation itself seems too coincidental to be realistic. It feels like the hand of a screenwriter at work, finding any possible way to bring along that change within the character. As I’ve said, the scene itself, on it’s own, is very good. But in the context of the rest of the film it feels somehow wrong; the only time the film actually tries to impose a moral judgement on the character that the audience is supposed to buy into. This goes completely against the more hands-off approach of the rest of the film, and it is a lesser film for it.
All that being said, The Woodsman is still a powerful film. It has perhaps the best performance Kevin Bacon has ever delivered. It generally treats its difficult subject matter with a great degree of nuance and sophistication. It is a difficult film, no doubt. It deals with a moral grey area that most people would rather see as black and white. It gives humanity to monsters, and while that may be tough to deal with, it is great to see the film do it anyway.