The Unforgivable, 2021.
Directed by Nora Fingscheidt.
Starring Sandra Bullock, Jon Bernthal, Vincent D’Onofrio, Rob Morgan, Viola Davis, Aisling Franciosi, Richard Thomas, Linda Emond, Emma Nelson, Tom Guiry, W. Earl Brown, Andrew Francis, and Jessica McLeod.
A woman is released from prison after serving a sentence for a violent crime and re-enters a society that refuses to forgive her past.
The Unforgivable contains such a preposterous third-act twist that it feels ripped from a trashy novel. However, director Nora Fingscheidt and the screenwriting team of Peter Craig, Hillary Seitz, and Courtenay Miles are actually working from the challenging foundation of condensing a TV series (The Unforgiven) into less than two hours. Whether or not the eleventh hour reveals remain the same or not is something I couldn’t care less to find out, but it is abundantly clear that the host of characters here have been squashed down into empty husks devoid of authentic personality, believable decisions, and anything resembling depth. If anything, a case could be made that some characters have no purpose in this interpretation of the story and that by axing them, room could have been made to further flesh out others.
Centering on Sandra Bullock’s freshly released from incarceration Ruth Slater, The Unforgivable follows the temperamental ex-convict reintegrating herself back into society, taking up residence inside a halfway home, periodically checking in with her blunt parole officer (Rob Morgan, nonetheless fine in the role even if his character gives some of the worst advice), and taking up work fulfilling her carpentry passion. Throughout this setup, there are also flashbacks getting across the point that Ruth was once a guardian to her five-year-old sister while financially unstable and facing eviction, a situation that led to the murdering of a local Washington Sheriff. Naturally, Ruth went to prison for 20 years, and Katie entered the foster system.
Unsurprisingly, Ruth has a desire to reconnect, make amends, and at the very least, check in on the happiness of her now-adult sister. Of course, her parole officer explains the harsh reality that taking legal action is probably not the best choice. He drills into her brain that from here on out, people will only see her as a horrible cop killer so long as she conceals it. That’s not to say he’s wrong, but some of his methods and speeches expressing this notion border on extreme and over-the-top. While taking up a second job at a seafood processing factory, Ruth also develops a friend played by Jon Bernthal, who could either end up as an empathetic ally or someone that turns her away like the rest of society.
As for Katie (breakout star of the Australian masterpiece The Nightingale, Aisling Franciosi, who deserves so much better than this thankless role), she lives a reasonably happy life with her foster parents and sister while making great strides playing the piano. As a result of the traumatic event, her mind appears to have blocked out all memory of the standoff and its gruesome aftermath. However, she does confess to her sister about recently having dreams resembling a former life. The film also gives Katie nothing to do, misguidedly, relegating her to an injury that threatens to upend her musical ambitions. That sounds intriguing, but there’s nothing to the character beyond existing as a goal for Ruth.
Elsewhere, brotherly siblings of the dead sheriff are aware that Ruth will be moving on with her life. Rather than explore this dynamic in any restrained or realistic portrait of grief and accountability, they only serve to kick off the chaotic finale that comes with several embarrassing conveniences, gaps in logic, and forced conflict. Without giving much away, the third act pivots into a different genre entirely without earning it.
Sandra Bullock is trying her damnedest to make the most of this character as someone who probably doesn’t deserve a second chance, but through her sympathetic talent and unbridled love for her sister, we hope she can find a measure of peace without screwing up her life rebound. Vincent D’Onofrio also makes an appearance as a levelheaded lawyer, whereas his wife is played by Viola Davis, who wants nothing to do with Ruth beyond her husband’s professional career, also questioning how he would react if the participants involved in the case were of mixed race like his own family. That’s another thought-provoking thread that, as I’m sure you expect, goes nowhere. There is a plot and characters genuinely worth studying here, but all The Unforgivable sees is an opportunity for trashy drama and terrible twists. That’s what’s unforgivable.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]
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