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Nothings normal in Woodsman

Story of a convicted pedophile doesn't go easy on the audience

The man's name is Walter, and he has a secret.

A woman he met at work, Vicki, has learned the former and guessed the latter. That is, she's guessed that Walter has a secret. There's just something about him.

So, he finally answers her questions about that secret with a question of his own: 'What's the worst thing you've ever done?'

Whether he asks out of a hope of being understood by someone he could care about or out of a need to come clean and be left alone isn't clear. What is clear Ñ to him and, at this point, to us Ñ is that he knows her answer will pale next to his.

Walter is a convicted pedophile. He has returned after 12 years in prison to his old job in a lumberyard, thanks to the cautious but not unsympathetic owner. His sister will not speak to him, but his brother-in-law comes by once in a while. He sees a shrink every week, and repeatedly asks the same question: 'When will I be normal?'

It's a question that can't be answered, and the makers of 'The Woodsman' don't try. What they attempt to do Ñ and ask us to do Ñ is understand this man who has done something monstrous but insists he is not a monster. And, far more than with the 'average' movie, its success will differ with each person who sees it.

This is a minefield of potential controversy, and debuting director Nicole Kasser negotiates it with a delicacy that is both admirable and problematic. She has a plain, unshowy style that is appropriate regardless of whether it is chiefly dictated by a minuscule budget. There's an occasional jagged outburst that is suited to its incredibly tense protagonist, but for the most part the film (again, like Walter himself) tends to lie low.

'The Woodsman' closes itself tightly around Kevin Bacon's Walter, who is as clenched as a fist. Determined to 'be normal,' he lives in a self-made hell of paranoid reticence, afraid of what any comment, expression or movement might reveal.Bacon is very good here, actually creating the impression that Walter is so trapped in himself that he's smaller than he should be. It helps that Bacon seemed to take a while to settle into mature roles, and that his face has achieved a kind of severity without entirely losing its boyishness.

Kyra Sedgwick (Bacon's wife) grows comfortably into Vicki once she gets past some mannered gum-chewing meant to indicate a tough cookie. Benjamin Bratt is fine as the brother-in-law, while Mos Def is full of creepy insinuation as a cop who seems to want Walter to fail.

It is, however, in the supporting characters, embodying perhaps too representative a series of possible responses, that 'The Woodsman' feels overly schematic. And the fact that Walter's apartment overlooks a school that is being frequented by another pedophile Ñ a projection, of course, of his own terrible impulses Ñ can't overcome a sense of contrivance.

But those who are not simply and irrevocably repulsed by Walter's crime (which is not shown) may find in 'The Woodsman' a quiet, powerful attempt to face the questions Walter asks by facing and questioning what he is.