For all the squawking about Hollywood dumbing down and dolling up every story under the sun, it's only providing a service that, in the dark days before Hollywood, we managed for ourselves.
Take Little Red Riding Hood, for example, an old, familiar tale sporting an ending that most of us remember as being clean, bloodless and happy for all (except for the wolf, of course). What's not so readily remembered is that the original story by the Brothers Grimm had Red finally being swallowed up whole by her lupine nemesis, only to be rescued at the 11th hour by a passing woodsman who cuts open the wolf's stomach and allows the little girl inside to step out into the sun.
That image is the inspiration for the title of The Woodsman, although for most of this film we find ourselves wondering if its main character is going to turn out to be Red Riding Hood's redeemer or the one who gobbles her up. After seeing the movie, you might just agree that he's a bit of both.
To cut to the chase, The Woodsman is about a pedophile, albeit one wracked by conscience and struggling to overcome or at least deny his nature. The man's name is Walter Rossworth (a slow-burning and almost painfully intense Kevin Bacon) and, as the movie opens, he has just been paroled after serving 12 years in prison for the crime of molesting a little girl. Walter is a woodworker by trade (just in case we need a little help connecting the dots to the movie's title), and he uses those skills to land himself a gig at the one furniture-making shop willing to hire him. It's there that he begins the process of picking up the pieces of what might loosely be called his life, a process that The Woodsman details in its quiet, deliberately paced way.
With his tightly curled slash of a mouth and glazed-over baby blues that never quite meet anyone's gaze, Bacon plays Walter as a man drained of joy and trapped in his own skin. He responds to questions, regardless of their nature, in monosyllables or with a non-committal "OK," and if he's got emotions, he's not telling or showing. He's a dead man walking, his last link to the world a barely simmering hostility and the bird feeder he places by his window every morning.
Most significantly and inexplicably of all, Walter has taken an apartment right across the street from an elementary school. The reason for this unthinkable choice of addresses, he claims, is that the landlord is the only person in town who'll take his money - but a more likely explanation is that Walter is testing himself. It's as if his proximity to temptation (in the form of all those children) is somehow his cross to bear, a notion that's key to screenwriter Steven Fechter's dicey decision to present Walter as something of a martyr.
The Woodsman admirably refrains from passing judgment, but it's not beyond stretching metaphors to encourage us to see Walter as a kind of Holy/Unholy Trinity all wrapped up in one tightly wound bundle of nerves. He's rescuer, wolf and Red Riding Hood, a conflicted hero who has to slay his own big, bad self in order to free the innocent lamb waiting inside.
In any event, Walter gets by one day at a time; like an alcoholic recording each new morning of sobriety, he dutifully makes his daily count of the 320 steps from his front door to the gates of the schoolyard. One day, a child's brightly colored ball even bounces out of those gates and comes to rest at Walter's feet on the street outside, a blatantly symbolic reminder of small, unseen hands nearby. (It's also almost certainly a deliberate nod to a similar scene from Fritz Lang's M, one of the cinema's earliest and probably its most famous study of men who prey on children.)
The Woodsman is best when nothing much is really happening, in a strict, story-driven sense - when the movie is simply observing Walter wrestling with his considerable demons. The film's attempts at juicing itself up with subplots are mostly unsuccessful. The worst of these involves Walter's discovery of another, far more ruthless pedophile checking out the kids at the schoolyard - a hokey and completely unnecessary plot manipulation that briefly threatens to take The Woodsman into it-takes-a-pedophile-to-catch-a-pedophile thriller-diller territory.
Far more satisfying are the scenes where Walter forges a tentative link with another human being - a female co-worker played by Bacon's real-life wife Kyra Sedgwick - a romantic relationship he seems to be trying to sabotage almost before it's begun.
There are a few minor characters floating about, too, but the real reason to see the film is for the sheer vividness of its portrait of Walter, whose struggle not to give in to forbidden desires is far scarier than any conventional suspense drummed up by the movie's ill-considered sub-plots.
As human goods go, Walter's about as damaged as they come, but the last thing The Woodsman wants is for us to see him as an ogre ("I'm not a monster," is his Elephant Man-like howl of protest at one point, and we believe him). Even if his nature repels us, the film makes it surprisingly easy to be moved by the efforts of this tortured and confused man to understand himself, by his desire for transformation.
The Woodsman supplies no easy answers, offers no suggestions of some miraculous cure for Walter waiting in the wings, and that's something bound to frustrate even the most sophisticated viewers and possibly enrage others. What Walter struggles with may well be incurable, and the greatest strength of The Woodsman is its unflinching honesty at owning up to that possibility. As the Brothers Grimm knew all too well, there really are monsters in this world - and like it or not, some of them need love, too.