A pedophile (Kevin Bacon) returns to his hometown after 12 years in prison and attempts to start a new life.

1 Jan 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 1 Oct 2014 - 1:30 PM
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It has been almost a year since The Woodsman had its world premiere at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. It has been scheduled for release in Australia for some time but has had its date put back several times, likely due to the controversial nature of its story. Like Downfall, the German movie about Hitler's last days currently screening, The Woodsman is a film which will challenge audiences mainly for its sympathetic portrayal of a monster. It invites us into the life and mind of a paedophile looking for redemption.

Adapted from a play by Steven Fechter (he also co-wrote the screenplay), it is young American writer/director Nicole Kassell's feature film debut. While at times it is a tough watch, The Woodsman is a remarkable achievement. Kevin Bacon executive produces and stars in The Woodsman, giving one of the best performances of his career. He plays Walter Rossworth, a man who has just been released from prison after serving 12 years for sexually molesting young girls. He tries to live anonymously, renting a grotty flat, getting a gritty job (at a lumberyard) and trying to put the past - and his compulsions - behind him. But his new life isn't going to be that easy. For one he's living across the road from a primary school (improbable perhaps given how closely monitored paroled sex offenders are in the States, but there are reasons given).

He is also the subject of curiosity by his fellow co-workers, one of whom Vickie (Kyra Sedgewick, Bacon's real life partner) falls for him. And the local cop Sgt. Lucas - superbly performed by hip hop star Mos Def, who brings almost a poetic edge to this otherwise exhausted role – is on his case. Walter is a pariah. He will be watched and punished by Lucas should he put even a hair out of line.

The Woodsman is a pot-boiler, containing very sensitive cultural subject matter sure to divide audiences. It's an easy film to put everyone concerned with the production on the back foot. But there are no defences needed for such a film. Firstly it is has great filmic integrity, derived from a pedigree of independent 1970s American movies such as Paul Schrader's Blue Collar (1978) and an early Dustin Hoffman movie Straight Time (1978), where Hoffman also plays an ex-con trying to go the straight and narrow. Secondly it is a mature effort, complex and measured, hardly an apologist movie for child molesters.

Bacon's Walter is clearly abhorrent, the movie makes that very clear. Yet watching him wrestle with his compulsions is a strangely moving/tense experience. Not simply for Bacon's much noted 'likability factor' as an actor - he manages to evacuate most of this in the role as he did playing another sex offender in Sleepers (1996) - but I found this empathetic emotional texture more a brave dramatic move on behalf of the filmmakers. Life isn't black and white and neither are the best films, just ask the makers of Capturing The Friedmans (2003), the Oscar-nominated documentary that also depicted a paedophile with a degree of sympathy.

Finally, surely one of the roles of cinema is to throw into sharp focus transgressive characters. Serial killers, rapists and murderers have saturated movies for far too long, taking away the currency of their actions. Which I find kind of criminal. Rather than say 'this is a film that should never have been made', we should look to serious undertakings like this one to help us come to terms with how such people can exist in reality.

Greg Araki's Mysterious Skin is the next film around the corner to challenge us in such an uncompromising and poetic way. Both it and The Woodsman are highlights of this year's movie calendar.