Walter is played by Kevin Bacon, in what is arguably one of his finest, most nuanced performances of his long career. Walter is trying his best to get along as an ex-con without much attention. He gets a job with a sympathetic boss at a lumber yard (David Alan Grier, long time no see) and he works quietly and efficiently. He gets an apartment, one of the only in the city that will lease out to convicted felons. It just so happens to be next to a grade school. His brother-in-law, Carlos (Benjamin Bratt), will see him and will be friendly with him. His sister will not, mostly because she and Carlos have a twelve-year old girl. And so Walter shuffles through each and every day, riding the bus to work, working, and riding it back home. His discussions with his therapist (Michael Shannon) serve as an outlet but often turn contentious as Walter is clearly upset with his affliction. But no matter how much Walter wants to exist without drawing even the slightest bit of attention, the outside world works its way in.
At work he meets Vicki, a tough-minded girl among boys at the lumber yard who pretty much moves her way into Walter’s life. Vicki, played by Bacon’s real-life wife Kyra Sedgwick, is no nonsense in her approach to Walter. Sure, she is attracted to him, but in a crucial scene where the two are in bed and they tell each other their deepest and darkest secrets it is clear Vicki is attracted to damaged men. Their relationship is therapeutic for Walter, and even after he tells her the awful things he has done, there is a bit of distance that grows for a while before Vicki will no longer allow it. She wants to help Walter work his way through his disease and, thankfully, he lets her. Not everyone, however, is as helpful.
Mary-Kay, a secretary at the lumber yard played by Eve, is uneasy around Walter. She senses he is “damaged goods” and she goes snooping, eventually outing him at work and crushing an arena of calm in Walter’s life. His sanctuary of work, where he could calmly make his way through the day, has been shattered. All the while he is being leaned on by his parole officer, played by Mos Def. I would like to stop down for a minute to talk about Mos Def the actor. I enjoy his music to an extent, but I must say I wish Mos Def would act more often. He has a certain magnetism to his acting, a rhythm and a cadence to his speak that keeps me locked in to every word. Here, his Sergeant Lucas despises Walter, and we understand why, but his hatred feels more like oppression and that is key to making The Woodsman work. Walter is not drawn to create sympathy, but pity, and the way these outside influences crack the very measured façade he has been trying to create allows us to feel sorry for him but still recognize that he is a sick, troubled man who has done the most horrible of things.
There is a driving force in the plot involving the grade school and another suspected predator that I will not get into for fear of ruining the drama of the situation. But there is also an encounter with a young girl in the park that is the most pivotal moment of the entire film. I’ll say no more, but I will say the events that transpire will allow many viewers to make up their mind about Walter. At least a little bit.
The best thing director Nicole Kassell does with The Woodsman is she understands the story she is telling and she gets some of the best actors to play the right roles. Pedophilia is unforgiveable, hands down. That is a tough element to the story, and Kassell does not force sympathy for Walter. She does not make him a flawless, reformed protagonist for us to support. She creates a character that deserves our pity. She makes a decision to show Walter’s transgressions as a disease rather than a mental illness, and there is a difference. Perhaps Walter can change, or be cured of his disease, but maybe he should simply go away and die alone so children can be safe. But there are two moments for Walter I don’t want to detail where maybe we see the light at the end of the tunnel. Or maybe we see an ongoing issue, a diseased man whose disease has beaten him.