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THE UNFORGIVABLE (2021) review

December 19, 2021

 

written by: Peter Craig, Hillary Seitz, and Courtenay Miles
produced by: Sandra Bullock, Veronica Ferres, and Graham King
directed by: Nora Fingscheidt
rated: R (for language and violence)
runtime: 114 minutes
U.S. release date: November 24, 2021 (limited release) and December 10, 2021 (Netflix)

 

Sandra Bullock hasn’t acted in a movie since 2018, which found her headlining the apocalyptic horror thriller “Bird Box” at the beginning of the year that became a megahit for Netflix, and then starring in the summer release, “Ocean’s 8”, a comedy heist which was generally positively received, managing to escape the gender-swap labeling with its stylish charm intact. She’s back on Netflix now with a lead role in “The Unforgivable”, a drama which offers the Oscar-winner a chance to explore some serious and dark territory as a parolee trying to navigate life outside of prison, with a stern and single-minded goal to piece her life back together.

Bullock is quite good here, playing a character with a convincing rawness and vulnerable paranoia that’s masked by a hardened exterior. For most of the movie’s length, German director Nora Fingscheidt (making her English-language debut) offers a story inhabited by characters in tough and emotional situations, faced with challenging situations, which is engaging and intriguing for the audience. However, certain subplots and past revelations unfold that gradually unravel the credibility of a story that winds up needlessly trying to do too much as it concludes.

 

 

As the movie opens, Ruth Slater (Bullock) is being released from a twenty-year sentence in a Washington prison, which she served for killing a Snohomish sheriff (W. Earl Brown) in her attempt to fend off the law from evicting her from the farm home she shared with her younger sister, Katie (Neli Kastrinos). Her parole officer Vincent (Rob Morgan) meets her at the gate and drives Ruth to a new residence in a run-down neighborhood of Seattle where she’ll room with three other female ex-cons and share a bathroom with everyone else on the floor. It’s a slightly different kind of prison.

Vincent goes over her new rules – meet with him every Thursday morning, make no attempts at reconciliation with the victim’s family or friends and adhere to the strict no-contact order that prevents her from any reconnect with her sister, who was only five-years-old when Ruth was sent away. Because these rules are emphasized so clearly, it’s obvious Ruth will wind up breaking at least one of them and it’s one of a handful of inclusions by screenwriters Peter Craig, Hillary Seitz, and Courtenay Miles, that come across as a bit too heavy-handed.

Since Ruth picked up some carpentry skills while in the slammer, she hopes to get a job in that field, but getting a job without references (not to mention the “cop-killer” label that follows her) is next to impossible. So, she winds up working the graveyard shift at a local salmon fishery, where she catches the attention of co-worker Blake (Jon Bernthal), despite trying to quietly and cautiously keep to herself. At the same time, Ruth is unknowingly being tracked down by Keith (Tom Guiry), the son of the sheriff she killed, who eventually gets his brother, Steve (Will Pullen), involved in exacting some kind of revenge on the person who killed their father. Their “eye for an eye” approach seems heavily problematic and cliched, without any real decisive struggle or plan.

 

 

While adjusting to this new life, Ruth’s mind remains on the one she had with her sister, specifically haunted by the prominent events the day the sheriff died, which unfold in fragmented flashbacks. She was determined to protect her sister back then and is now just as determined to track down Katie now. She travels out of Seattle to visit what become known as the “murder house”, which she finds has been recently purchased and beautifully renovated by a lawyer named John (Vincent D’Onofrio), who lives there now with his wife, Liz (Viola Davis) and their two teen sons. While it’s strange and unnerving for Liz to see this quiet stranger arrive at their doorstep, John is friendly toward Ruth and invites her in after she states she did some interior carpentry work on the property years ago and even gives her a ride to her train, knowing full well she’s lied to him. She now has a lawyer she could contact to possibly look into any kind of way to work around the no-contact order. All she really wants is to meet up with her sister’s adoptive parents, Michael (Richard Thomas) and Rachel Malcolm (Linda Emond), who has raised Katie – who now goes by Katherine (Aisling Franciosi) – alongside their own younger daughter, Emily (Emma Nelson), and see how her sister is.

“The Unforgivable” is a story that deals with grief and trauma from a tragic event that left two families shattered. While Katherine was raised with a loving family after Ruth was imprisoned, it’s clear that the suppressed trauma from that dark day still revisits her in the present.

The movie opens up with her getting into a motor vehicle collision after dozing off at the wheel. Her adoptive parents try not it, but they are indeed concerned for Katherine and not just for her physical injuries (although she is a talented pianist who has an important upcoming recital), since it seems they’ve noticed mental and emotional issues to be concerned with. All Ruth and Katherine currently have in common is the haunting memories from the past that come to them in unexpected ways…for Ruth they are more vivid and less confusing, while due to her age, poor Katherine is more confused by it all.

 

 

While Katherine is confused by her past, what happened back then is all that Ruth holds on to as she tries to move through a life that isn’t giving her much room to do anything. As she hopes to work around the legal blocks that prevent her from reuniting with sister, Ruth begins to make one bad decision after another, such as visiting the “Murder House” in the country, which now has new owners. Although much of what occurs in “The Unforgivable” feels like real life experiences and situations, all of the plates in this story start spinning too fast and soon. It doesn’t take long for viewers to realize there’s way too much being crammed into this story, way too quickly. That’s a shame considering there seems to be some very compelling themes to be explored here.

Just the idea of past regrets and PTSD are enough to work out in a feature-length film and then consider all that goes into assimilating to life outside of prison. That’s quite enough right there to work through, but there’s this revenge thread with the brothers that feels shoehorned in. Yes, their story has an understandable reality to it as well, but it comes across as a movie cliche, instead of something that can be expanded upon.

These are important subjects that feel rushed and painted with broad brush strokes, so it’s no surprise to learn that the whole thing is an abbreviated adaptation of a 2009 British mini-series called “Unforgiven” (all three episodes are available on YouTube) by Sally Wainwright. It all makes sense. A mini-series would certainly provide more time to lay out the situations and themes that the story offers. Although the acting is quite good here, especially Bullock and Franciosi, more time to delve into the character’s complexities and stretch out each storyline would benefit the overall story.

 

 

There’s a big reveal at the end of “The Unforgivable” that is truly problematic. I felt dumb for not seeing it coming, but the more I thought about it, the more it just didn’t make sense. It’s not worth spoiling or getting into, but you’ll probably agree if and when you see it.

That main flaw is definitely felt in the final act of “The Unforgivable”, with all storylines leading to a climax that feels too convenient, seriously rushed and ultimately artificial. Its too bad the production doesn’t realize the value of just remaining with Ruth’s deeply personal crisis and her legal interests to see Katharine. Instead, we get violence and twists to give viewers something to be thrilled by and an artificial sense of closure forced upon us. None of that is ever needed, but “The Unforgivable” doesn’t trust successful character study and instead forces mainstream conventions that derail the whole story.

 

RATING: **

 

 

 

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