It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
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.
Bacon is a strong and subtle actor, something that is often said but insufficiently appreciated. Here he employs all of his art. He seems to have no theory about Walter and no emotional tilt toward his problems, and that is correct, because we do not act out of theories about ourselves, but out of our hopes and desires. Bacon plays the character day by day, hour by hour, detail by detail, simply showing us this man trying to deal with his daily life. Larger conclusions are left to the audience.
He gets an apartment across from a grade school playground. He did not choose the location; he found a landlord who would rent to an ex-con. He gets a job in a lumberyard. No one there knows about his crime, but a co-worker named Mary-Kay (Eve) doesn't like him and senses something is wrong. Lucas, his parole officer (Mos Def) visits regularly and is hostile, convinced it is only a matter of time until Walter lapses.