Walter, a convicted child molester, returns home to Philadelphia after serving twelve years in prison. His friends and family have abandoned him, with the exception of his brother-in-law, Carlos.

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Powerful ‘Woodsman’ broaches uncomfortable topic

Roger Ebert January 06, 2005

For the first several scenes of “The Woodsman,” we know that Walter has recently been released from prison but we don’t know the nature of his crime. Seeing the film at Cannes last May, I walked in without advance knowledge and was grateful that I had an opportunity to see Kevin Bacon establish the character before that information was supplied. His crime has now been clearly named in virtually everything written about the film, and possibly changes the way it affects a viewer.

Walter is a pedophile. The film doesn’t make him a case study or an object for our sympathy, but carefully and honestly observes his attempt to re-enter society after 12 years behind bars. Maybe he will make it and maybe he will not. He has a deep compulsion, which is probably innate, and a belief that his behavior is wrong. That belief will not necessarily keep him from repeating it. Most of us have sexual desires within the areas accepted by society, and so never reflect that we did not choose them, but simply grew up and found that they were there.

The film has a crucial scene involving Walter and a young girl named Robin (Hannah Pilkes). Without suggesting how the scene develops, I will say that it is so observant, so truthful, that in a sense the whole film revolves around it. There is nothing sensational in this film, nothing exploitative, nothing used for “entertainment value” unless we believe, as I do, that the close observation of the lives of other people can be — well, since entertaining is the wrong word, then helpful. It is easy to present a pedophile as a monster, less easy to suggest the emotional devastation that led into, and leads out of, his behavior. The real question in “The Woodsman” is whether Walter will be able to break the chain of transmission.