Then again, he might pull it off. Bacon's performance gives his character, Walter, a dignity and humanity far beyond what you might expect. But the most surprising thing about The Woodsman is not that it elicits sympathy for a child molester. It's the way Bacon, who's had the word "underappreciated" affixed to his name since Mystic River, somehow reveals the inner life of a guy who has deliberately closed himself off. He barely speaks, but every time he twitches an eyelid or drops a corner of his mouth, you can see Walter's whole life story and the desperate fear that leads him to keep it under wraps. And he does it without ever making you think, "Wow, that's some great acting!"
The story, directed and co-written by Nicole Kassell from a play by Steven Fechter, is a grim one. Walter has just been released on parole after 12 years in prison for child molestation. He has no friends, and the only member of his family who still speaks to him is Carlos (Benjamin Bratt), his sister's husband. His apartment (in one of the film's few "oh, come on" twists) looks out on an elementary-school playground. He works at a lumber yard. His boss (David Alan Grier) knows why he was in prison and doesn't like it but is decent enough to give him a chance. The receptionist (Eve) tries to flirt with him, but Walter remains stony. It soon becomes clear that he has to be that way-letting anyone in would mean letting his secrets out. Worse, if he allows himself to feel anything, he might start feeling the wrong things again. So he straitjackets his emotions, suppresses everything, cuts himself off from any meaningful human contact. He talks to his shrink and his brother-in-law, and that's it.
Something about the quiet new guy attracts Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick), a sexy hardass who also works at the lumber yard. After a very straightforward seduction, they strike up an affair. She knows he has a dark secret, but he refuses to tell her. When he finally does, her veneer cracks in a way that's as believable as it is painful to watch. It's one of several agonizingly tense, quiet, perfectly paced scenes in the film, and every one of them feels like the most important thing that ever happened.
Walter is being monitored by a local cop, Sgt. Lucas (Mos Def), who has seen enough horror on his beat to loathe Walter from the start. It could've been a throwaway role, but Mos Def gives an awesome performance, somehow in his few lines making it clear that the sergeant's spitting rage is nothing more than a scar on a gentle soul. In fact, hardly any of the minor characters are one-dimensional. When the lumber-yard receptionist finds Walter's record on a website listing registered sex offenders, you know enough about her to see exactly why she does what she does.
The film does have its weak points, mostly to do with a subplot about a suspicious man who preys on little boys near the playground outside Walter's apartment. It seems unlikely and mostly unnecessary, although it serves the purpose of making a distinction between Walter, who is dangerous in his own way, and a more violent type of sexual predator. Or more accurately, it shows that Walter sees, and seizes upon, that distinction.
The most heartbreaking thing in the film is how desperately Walter wants to redeem himself. He asks his shrink repeatedly, "When will I be normal?" Bacon's underplayed and tightly controlled manner make the struggle far more moving than it could have been. His face is all vigilance and concentration, like he's guarding something with his life, but what he's guarding is himself. Next to that, convincing the Academy to give the Best Actor nod to a potentially revolting character almost looks easy.
The Woodsman Rated R Cinema 21, 616 NW 21st Ave, 503-223-4515. 7 and 8:55 pm Friday-Thursday, Jan. 21-27. Additional shows 10:45 pm Friday-Saturday, 12:45, 2:45 and 4:45 pm Saturday-Sunday. $4-$7.