Warning, here thar be SPOILERS.
Kevin Bacon plays Walter, who is just being released after spending twelve years in prison for child molestation. He starts a new job and deals with himself and those around him in a new way after his time. He is not aggressively repentant, nor is he without remorse. He attempts to keep to himself and simply be left to his own devices and attempt to make himself what he feels to be “normal” (which he defines for himself to his therapist). Kyra Sedgwick plays a coworker who attempts to make a connection with Walter, and, upon finding out his ‘dark secret’ (as she playfully refers to it prior to finding out) goes through what feels like a realistic but rather strong response, being able to see that Walter is not proud and does not want to repeat his crime or go back to prison.
His boss, Bob (David Alan Grier) and brother Carlos (Benjamin Bratt) are the only other people around him willing to give him a chance. Mary-Kay (Eve) the jealous, conniving, gutless bitch of a secretary at his place of work and Sgt. Lucas (Mos Def) are instantly condemnatory of Walter and refuse to believe he is even capable of proving himself able to be “normal.” Lucas is quiet and honest, telling Walter exactly what he thinks of him whereas Mary-Kay sneaks around behind him in self-righteous condemnation–apparently inspired partly by jealousy.¹
The most pivotal, agnozing, tense, interesting, enthralling, engrossing, horrifying, important scene (I just read his review and Ebert agrees) is when Walter interacts with a young girl named Robin. I won’t say anymore than that except it is so perfectly executed that my entire body was tensed watching it, dreading what might happen, and whether Walter really did wish to change.
This truly is, if not the, then at least close to, Kevin’s most wonderful performance ever. He’s subtle with it, and does not show someone tortured by guilt, nor does he portray a monster. He portrays a normal man with an abnormal, unhealthy, monstrous sexual preference. Some have written that the film is despicable for trying to humanize paedophiles. This is stupid. Paedophiles are human. There are no ways around this. Even leaving aside arguments about literal meaning (paedophiles are not necessarily anything more than unhealthily interested in children; it is not actually a synonym for ‘child rapist’) they ARE humans. If nothing else, we must be acutely aware of this even if our only interest is Sgt. Lucas-like vigilance. They do not stand out as mutants or freaks unless you know of their desires, and those are not simply going to be right there on display.
And of course one must realize that by and large many of them probably are like Walter and are not aware of the harm they are doing; the ones who are “only” molesting and not raping probably do not think of or notice the psychological ramifications of their actions. This simply further proves their humanity (as it were). What Walter does is not like the molester he notices outside his window; he does not bait young girls into cars and take them to a locked room and rape them. If they were adults of capable mental faculties, we would think he was a bit sleazy and so on, but not quite so despicable. The problem here is, of course, that 10-12 year old girls are not generally of at least the emotional ability to deal with this (mental/intellectual…perhaps, but not enough). Walter is not the guy you hear about and suddenly fear for your child’s life, he is the dirty man you don’t want your child anywhere near. The one you hear about somewhat cursorily on the news, not as the FBI’s most wanted.
This is why we can accept Walter’s desire to change, and why we can see some level of sympathy for him. His actions, though they can be rationalized and understood, are, of course, still not excusable; but in his case there is room for some tolerance and some desire to help him to help himself.
¹I want to hit her. She’s one of those types of characters.