THE WOODSMAN Pedophiles love balls.

The Woodsman
dir. Kassell
Opens Fri Jan 21
Cinema 21

Hollywood so rarely offers thoughtful challenges to its audiences that when they do, it's hard not to automatically be grateful. Luckily, The Woodsman--which features Kevin Bacon as Walter, a pedophile--not only offers such challenges, but deserves some gratitude. (It also helps that Bacon's performance is the best thing to happen to his career since that "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" parlor game.)

Just released from prison, where he served 12 years as a sex offender, Walter sincerely struggles to reform and lead a normal life. Undoubtedly, that facet of The Woodsman will produce howls of outrage from masses who prefer to deny the possibility that a pedophile is anything but an unforgivable monster--but The Woodsman not only asks the audience to forgive Walter, but even to like and root for him. In order to make this a little more palatable, Walter's actual crimes are presented as gently as possible. In a film remarkably (and wisely) short on sensationalism, his past is pieced together slowly over the course of the film, with a particularly helpful demonstration by Walter and his grown-up girlfriend, Vicki (played by Bacon's real-life wife, Kyra Sedgwick). His "technique" (for lack of a less creepy word) would be traumatizing--but painless, non-invasive, non-violent, and (at least in Walter's mind) without malice. It's significantly easier to sympathize with Walter than it would be with a character who penetrated or injured his victims.

Still, the fact remains that child molestation is arguably the worst moral taboo in our society, and most would sooner lock up all transgressors and throw away the key (or just kill them) than uncomfortably distinguish between the degrees of their perversions. In this, The Woodsman is commendably brave, exploring both the demons and the kindnesses in Walter.

A few plot points are somewhat distracting--like Vicki's hasty reacceptance of Walter after she finds out about his past, and the fact that the only apartment he can get is across the street from a grade school (c'mon). Still, the quality and grace of The Woodsman far outweigh the story's occasional convenience; slow yet riveting, the film's sensitivity is precious.