In a case of “so close you can sometimes see the better movie,” The Unforgivable tells the story of Ruth Slater (Sandra Bullock), who is released from prison after serving 20 years for shooting a sheriff who was trying to extract her and her young sister from their family home after their parents died (or otherwise abandoned them). Ruth didn’t mean to shoot the sheriff, but that doesn’t lessen the pain of his family, and it makes getting out of prison even harder with the local police mildly harassing her at every turn. Ruth’s only mission is find out what happened to her younger sister, Katie (now grown and played by The Nightingale’s Aisling Franciosi), who is now living with her new adopted parents (Richard Thomas and Linda Emond) and their daughter Emily (Emma Nelson) and has no memory of her life before the shooting.
According to her parole officer (Rob Morgan, also in Don’t Look Up this week), Ruth isn’t allowed anywhere near Katie, but when she meets attorney John Ingram (Vincent D’Onofrio) living in her old family’s home, she asks him to help her arrange a meeting with the adoptive parents. In the meantime, she gets a job at a fish processing plant, where her life starts to stabilize to a degree; she even begins a promising acquaintance with a co-worker (Jon Bernthal). Naturally, things start to come apart for Ruth just as they feel like they are looking up.
The now-grown sons (Will Pullen and Tom Guiry) of the sheriff Ruth shot are determined to destroy her life, making sure she doesn’t get a better job (she trained to be a carpenter in prison and even lines up a job before her potential employer gets a mysterious call from one of the brothers, we assume). They whip themselves into enough of a frenzy that they even start plotting Ruth’s death or perhaps the death of someone Ruth cares about. It’s an unnecessary layer of drama that The Unforgivable simply didn’t need to successfully engage viewers. Ruth’s own self-teardown (not to mention the exceptional cast pulled together for this one) is enough to keep our interest, without actual villains thrown into the mix.
German filmmaker Nora Fingscheidt has a fairly decent handle on both Ruth’s inner turmoil and the judgment that follows her wherever she goes. There’s a late-in-the-film reveal that I admittedly wasn’t expecting, but it mostly feels like a copout on the part of the screenplay, clearly done for reasons I won’t spoil here. Instead, it feels like a genuine effort is being made not to tarnish Bullock’s reputation as a beloved icon. A big part of the reason I liked any part of The Unforgivable is that Bullock dared to sully her good name by playing a cop killer, but when you seemingly undercut that, the rest comes crumbling down quickly. It’s a near miss, one that easily could have been such a better work in more confident hands.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
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