The title comes from Sgt. Lucas (Mos Def) about one hour into the movie. He tells convicted pedophile Walter (Kevin Bacon) about the woodsman character from Little Red Hood who cuts the girl out of the wolf's belly completely unharmed. Then, he tells him about a seven-year-old girl who was raped and mutilated by a felon he placed on death row. Even twenty-year veterans broke down in tears when they found the body. There are no woodsmen in the real world, he says. "I don't why they let freaks like you on the streets," he tells him. "We just have to catch you again."
That exchange embodies the central conflict The Woodsman (2004), a moving, difficult, and challenging film directed by Nicole Kassell and produced by Lee Daniels. After spending twelve years in prison for molesting young girls, Walter has been paroled into a society that is hostile toward him. Even with a job in a lumberyard and a new girlfriend (Kyra Sedgwick), Walter struggles to re-adapt and fight his demons. Although he wants to heal, Walter becomes increasingly isolated and afraid he will return to his past deeds.
I really don't know what I can say about the movie except it never feels exploitative, cheap, or manipulative. It doesn't condone Walter's crimes nor does approve of his behavior, but instead, it examines and understands him. What he did was wrong, and he must live with that for the rest of his life, but Walter is not painted as a monster or a caricature. He wants to heal but struggles every day as his self confidence erodes. When others learn the truth of his past, they understandably are horrified and angered, and many want nothing to do with him.
The movie provides several unsettling sequences when it appears Walter is slipping back into his old ways. It's nerve-wracking to see him following a girl through the wall or approach a girl (in a red coat no less) alone in a park because you're scared for the potential victims and hoping Walter can resist his impulses. There's no dark alleys, violence, or creepy music, but these scenes are effective.
Kevin Bacon gives one of the best performances of his career playing a dark character. One review stated it could have destroyed his career, but his willingness provides a complicated character: tormented, guilt ridden, shamed, angry at himself, angry at society, tempted, resentful, lonely. This performance required courage. Sedgwick is also good as the tough, no-bull woman who loves this man but is disturbed by history. Mos Def is surprisingly solid in a dramatic part; I'm used to seeing him a wise-cracking sidekick in action fare such as The Italian Job remake, but he's serious here. David Alan Grier, Eve, Benjamin Bratt, and Michael Shannon also do well in supporting roles as they various people Walter interacts with.
If there are no woodsmen to save the day and restore order, then you could say there are no single-minded wolves either. Walter is a pedophile who did something monstrous and unforgivable, but he himself is not a monster. Every day, he struggles to fit in with the world, atone for his past, and improve himself. That is the conflict at the heart of the movie, and while it is difficult subject matter, the film is intelligent, honest, and thoughtful.