Last year, Tim Robbins won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Mystic River, but his performance was too mannered by half, as he forced a hearty New England accent through wounded body language and line-readings. At every moment, with every slouch and stammer, his character's traumatic past registers with an actorly abundance that's far from naturalistic. In a film packed with Method fireworks, Kevin Bacon's low-key turn was perhaps the most affecting, but he pulls a Robbins in The Woodsman, an earnest Sundance veteran about an intrinsically flawed man baby-stepping toward redemption. Bacon lends false gravitas to his role as a paroled child molester; he radiates shame in cascading waves, while the grim atmospherics of director Nicole Kassell only add to a mood of high seriousness.
Adapted from Steven Fechter's play, The Woodsman closely follows Bacon after he's released from a 12-year prison sentence and returns to his Philadelphia hometown to put his life back together. Residing in a modest apartment adjacent to a local grade school—perhaps not the most sensible place for a convicted sex offender—Bacon works at a lumberyard, where news about his past eventually makes the rounds. In a performance that suggests Anybodys in a dinner-theater production of West Side Story, Kyra Sedgwick plays a tomboy forklift operator whose tough talk breaks through Bacon's somnambulant bubble. Their tenuous romance offers the possibility of normalcy for Bacon, but old temptations linger, and a skeptical detective (a superb Mos Def) waits anxiously for a chance to send Bacon back to the slammer.
In the past, pedophiles have been cast as the darkest of villains, but courageous films such as Happiness and Capturing The Friedmans have raised the bar, bringing more dimension to these characters without glossing over their crimes. The Woodsman takes a calculated risk by observing a pedophile with a sympathetic eye, but it minimizes that risk by negating any other qualities that might make Bacon seem more human. Kassell and Fechter are wise to the reality that convicts of any kind, no matter their commitment to becoming productive members of society, face an uphill battle. They also know that sex criminals cannot always will away their impulses: In a long, bravura sequence involving Bacon and an underage girl in the park, his desire and his conscience engage in a battle with no easy winner. But while The Woodsman gets the psychological profile right, it fails to make Bacon a man.