The Woodsman, 87 mins, rated MA, due to open in cinemas on 14 April 2005.

(This review originally appeared in the NSW Law Society Journal).

In the March 2004 issue of the Law Society Journal, my review of the documentary film Capturing the Friedmans (Jarecki, 2003) opened with the question “What are the rights of a paedophile?”

The same issue arose in Australia recently, as the Sydney Morning Herald reported on 2 February 2005 (page 2).

Queensland police were forced to protect a notorious pedophile from an angry mob who demanded he leave their town. Dennis Ferguson, 56, who served a 14-year term for raping three children, moved to Murgon, 300 kilometres north of Brisbane, last weekend. Police were forced to intervene after a group of up to 80 residents protested outside Mr Ferguson’s house yesterday. After being evicted by his landlord, he was escorted by police to the local watch-house.

The issue is explored again in The Woodsman, a new fictional feature film starring the talented Kevin Bacon. We last saw Bacon quietly stealing scenes from Sean Penn and Tim Robbins in Mystic River (Clint Eastwood, 2003). He is centre-stage here, playing opposite his real-life-wife Kyra Sedgwick, and it is probably the performance of a lifetime.

Bacon plays Walter, a convicted paedophile. As the film opens he has been paroled after spending 12 years in prison for crimes unspecified. The Woodsman is about his attempt to rejoin society, and to deal with his demons. Will he make the most of this second chance, or will he falter and offend again? And when, as he asks himself over and over, will he be “normal”?

First-time director Nicole Kassell also co-wrote the screenplay, which is based on a play by her co-writer, Steven Fechter. The screenplay, the direction and most of the performances are economical and admirably restrained. Bacon’s performance is masterfully underplayed. The film never crosses the line into the lurid or the exploitive. Scenes involving young children are never overtly sexual.

There are a few false notes, however: Walter gets a job and an apartment straight away, and his apartment is rather implausibly right opposite a school playground. Walter also acquires an attractive girlfriend rather too easily. Symbolism is occasionally laid on with a trowel. And there is a nasty character at Walter’s workplace, who doesn’t quite ring true. But these are fairly minor quibbles in the overall scheme, especially given the film’s sensitivity and deep humanity in the face of very difficult issues.

The director and writer present the issues to us unsimplified. Human sexuality is complicated, and the shadow of sexual abuse is in many people’s pasts. The ways in which people derive sexual pleasure can be many and varied, and can stem from many different influences. Can anyone say with absolute certainty what is “normal”?

The other fascinating aspect of the film is its examination of Walter’s “rights”. Has he the right to any privacy? Do his co-workers have the right to know what he did? Should he be allowed to live near a school? Is it OK for the police to keep an eye on him? Enter and search his apartment without a warrant? Harass him? Insult him? Has he paid his debt to society, or will he never be able to atone for his horrible crime?

But be warned: there are a few very disturbing scenes. One involves a young girl, played by a terrific little actor named Hannah Pilkes, whom Walter “befriends”. Her conversation in the park with Walter will break your heart. And a number of scenes involving a character nicknamed “Candy” raise the disturbing question of whether there can be such a thing as a “good” and a “bad” paedophile.

Is it hard to accept the idea of Kevin Bacon as a child molester? Should the director have cast someone less likeable? I don’t believe so. Co-incidentally, on 10 November 2004, two days after I saw The Woodsman, ABC TV’s The 7.30 Report had a story about a rehabilitation program for sex offenders. Karen Owen, the manager of the program, said that sex offenders may be “…the man next to you on the bus. They have families and children…they live next door…”. And as psychologist Carla Lopez chillingly remarked, “Monsters don’t get close to kids: nice guys do”.