"THE WOODSMAN," which derives its title from the fairy tale character who kills the wolf and saves Red Riding Hood, is one dark stumble through the woods for Walter (Kevin Bacon).
A sex offender who has just served 12 years for molesting little girls, he slinks into hometown Philadelphia like a leper. The normal world is, for him, a terrifying ordeal. He's branded for life, with legal orders to register as an offender and stay away from schoolyards. His sister, now a parent, refuses to speak to him. And even though an old family friend (David Alan Grier) gives Walter a job at a lumberyard, he still has to lie low, waiting for his colleagues to discover his shameful past. There is no pity for sex offenders.
When Vickie (Kyra Sedgwick), a fellow worker, shows an interest in him, Walter parries her questions with evasive answers. Can he handle a relationship? Does he even deserve one? And won't he lose her the moment he tells her the truth? He takes this thing one painful step at a time.
These could be the elements for a horror movie, a thriller and all manner of licentious exploitation. But "The Woodsman," which Steven Fechter adapted (with director Nicole Kassell) from his play, has a different, canny approach. Since we spend our time with Walter, we're involuntarily thrown in with him. We're forced to see the life he has to lead before we even learn the details of his crimes. By the time we do find out what happened, we have developed, without intending to, a discomforting empathy for a pedophile. After all, who hasn't cringed at the thought of ridicule, or worried about an embarrassing secret coming to light? Who hasn't craved happiness or love? Who doesn't value redemption?
There's another element, too. From Walter's perspective, we see how everyone has a little of the dark side in them, including Carlos (Benjamin Bratt), Walter's brother-in-law, whose comments about his own daughter have a disturbing subtext.
Bacon's subtle, assured performance keeps us with him every step of the way. He's certainly morally adrift, but his experiences have given him a deeper awareness of right and wrong than most "normal" people. Has he regained moral control of himself? Is the nightmare over or just lurking? And when there's a chance to redeem himself, will he seize it? "The Woodsman" doesn't ask you to condone pedophilia or the man who has committed it, but it does invite you to root for a man's good instincts to prevail over his bad ones. And that's an intriguing dilemma for Walter and ourselves.
THE WOODSMAN ( R, 87 minutes) -- Contains description of pedophilia, obscenity and some violence. At AFI Silver Theatre, Landmark's E Street Cinema and Loews Georgetown.