Netflix’s The Unforgivable asks Sandra Bullock to go way too hard
In this potentially compelling character study, there's nothing to latch onto.
In many respects, Netflix’s The Unforgivable, filmmaker Nora Fingscheidt’s slow-moving redemption picture, resembles Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, lacking the noir themes. Through flashbacks to the traumatic occurrence, the film’s protagonist revisits a mistake – an innocent person’s death – in this case, an officer who died at the hands of Ruth Slater (Sandra Bullock). When the memories enter Slater’s mind, they pierce like shards of glass, exposing more information about the tragedy and inflicting more misery on the rememberer with each passing. Unfortunately, unlike Destroyer, The Unforgivable lacks any kind of narrative suspense.
The plot of the film is divided into three sections: Slater is released on good conduct after serving 20 years in jail, according to her parole officer Vincent (Rob Morgan). He places her in a flophouse in Seattle’s Chinatown and finds her work in a fish-packing plant. Despite her parole restrictions, Slater goes in search of her now-adult child sister Katherine (Aisling Franciosi), who lives with a pair of well-to-do foster parents and has only short recalls of her previous existence. Unbeknownst to Slater, the sons of the officer she murdered, Steve (Will Pullen) and Keith (Tom Guiry), have learned of her parole and are out for vengeance.
Despite a strong cast lead by a transformational Bullock, Unforgivable unfolds at a plodding pace, missing the urgency and sorrow essential in a redemption story in which the viewer is expected to root for the injured protagonist. Bullock’s visage, like Kidman’s in Destroyer, shifts from strained and ragged in present-day scenes to brilliant, in-full-makeup in flashback moments. Slater is portrayed by Bullock as terse, tense at the jaw, and perpetually on the verge of erupting. Slater strives to maintain a low profile.She’s frequently cautious — she’s done her time, but her reputation as a cop-killer will follow her wherever she goes. That’s why, when a coworker at the fish-packing plant, the kind, giving Blake (Jon Bernthal, still wearing his King Richard mustache), falls in love with her, she initially appears hesitant to follow the first little shred of kindness shown to her. Slater does not feel she is worthy of atonement.
Instead, her yearning to see her sister again keeps the first half moving. The plot closely resembles Sally Wainwright’s three-part British miniseries Unforgiven, on which it is based: Slater returns to the farmhouse where she allegedly shot the officer, only to discover that it is now occupied by lawyer John Ingram (Vincent D’Onofrio), his wife Liz (Viola Davis), and their two boys.
Whereas Unforgiven features an all-white cast, Netflix’s version allows Fingscheidt to question Slater’s privilege through Liz’s candid questioning. Slater claims that no one would let her visit her sister, but she is a white lady who was freed after killing an officer, but a Black person would have been slain before reaching jail. To add salt to injury, Liz’s husband John agrees, pro gratis, to assist in reuniting Slater with her sister. (Would John have acted similarly if Slater had been a Black cop-killer?)
Unfortunately, those fleeting bursts of self-awareness are the only bits of sizzle in this stale storyline. Along with the film’s ostensibly core vengeance narrative, D’Onofrio and Davis are reduced to supporting roles. Outside of Slater’s workplace, Steve and Keith pursue her, but their threat isn’t sensed.
Keith’s spiral into wrath isn’t either. While he starts out as a lovely let-bygones-be-bygones type of guy, he quickly becomes driven by hatred towards Slater. The inciting offense that causes Keith to turn isn’t entirely credible – it’s trivial, which is a flaw in the writing. And Guiry’s overblown acting, a jumble of facial tics and anxieties, adds nothing to the film’s weight. Keith, Slater, and Katherine are all traumatized in their own ways, but it all floats around on the surface, contributing little to the film’s lukewarm drama.
The Unforgivable’s main flaw is how aggressively it tries to portray Slater as unforgivable. In some ways, Bullock’s celebrity should help to alleviate the difficulty. (Can Bullock truly be the antagonist?) The bewitching actress, for her part, provides a lively performance: the tug of war between her repressed wrath, an anger scattered across her face, and a few genuine outbursts — one of which occurs when she meets her sister’s adoptive parents — can surely keep a dwindling attention span at bay.
But in a part that strips the actress of all her pleasant characteristics, reducing her to a wealthy killer, even her past relationship with the audience can’t replace the voids. As a result, audiences are saddled with a stale vengeance storyline and a protagonist who is so unlikeable that it’s tough to cheer for her, making the film’s almost two-hour length an endurance test. A late-movie surprise that recasts Slater as a sacrificial victim rather than a villain comes as too little and too late.
Aside from the narrative fat (The Unforgivable could easily be cut by half an hour) and excellent performers like Davis being relegated in thankless roles, the film squanders other potential to shine. Guillermo Navarro’s photography occasionally employs horrifying orange tones. The soundtrack, complete with sirens and high-pitched buzzing that accompany each memory, is too obvious to be effective. The Unforgivable by Fingscheidt has all the makings of a compelling redemption story. But it’s inexcusable how much such ability is squandered.