Review: ‘The Unforgivable’ is at odds with itself but still works

There is no question that prison is hard on a person, especially in countries like the United States, where the system is set up to be punitive rather than rehabilitative. A long stint can leave a person a shell of their former self unless they have something on the outside to hold on to. In The Unforgivable, that something is a younger sister that the main character isn’t allowed to see. In this circumstance, how do you go on?

The answer, it seems, is one day at a time. As the film opens, Ruth (Sandra Bullock) is being let out of prison. She collects her things, meets her parole officer, and takes her ride into Seattle. She has spent twenty years in prison for killing a police officer and sets about rebuilding her life. She gets two jobs, one in a fish market and one helping build a community centre. While revisiting the house, she was living in when she was arrested meets John (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Liz (Viola Davis) and their family. John senses something isn’t right, and when he learns the truth about her, he offers to help her try to reconnect with Katie.

This sounds like a pretty straightforward character drama that wants to examine the ravages that prison life can have on a person, one that critiques the American justice system and holds it to account. Unfortunately, the film has a subplot where the sons of the police officer that Ruth was convicted of killing are plotting to kill her, and it feels like a completely different movie.

The Unforgivable. (L-R) Sandra Bullock (producer) as Ruth Slater, Jon Bernthal as Blake. Cr. Kimberley French/Netflix

In the first story, where Ruth is trying to rebuild her life and make some connections after twenty years in the joint, there is some good stuff. Bullock is a reliably good actor, and while the film falls into that subgenre of “beautiful woman dressing down for drama”, she remains sincere and believable. Jon Bernthal plays Blake, a coworker with whom she forges the beginnings of a relationship, and while he plays a little against his usual type as a slightly goofy, sweet man who is interested in knowing her as a person.

The supporting cast in this part of the story is stacked with talent. D’Onofrio and Davis are both good, and Rob Morgan, Linda Emond, Richard Thomas, and Aisling Franciosi all put in some good work, too, despite some of their characters being underdeveloped –Franciosi and Davis, in particular, have very little to do.

THE UNFORGIVABLE (L-R): VINCENT D’ONOFRIO as JOHN INGRAM, VIOLA DAVIS as LIZ INGRAM. CR: KIMBERLEY FRENCH/NETFLIX © 2021

In the other story, the sons of the dead policeman (played by Thomas Guiry and Will Pullen) stalk Ruth and eventually plan to kill her in revenge for their father’s death. This whole story has a different energy, and while it’s not exactly bad, there’s a tonal disconnect between the two stories that never quite resolves.

The film is based on a British miniseries, and while the film isn’t that much shorter (114 minutes vs the 135 of the mini), it still feels like some of the connective tissue between these stories is missing. Still, the parts of the movie that work outweigh the ones that don’t, and The Unforgiven is precisely the kind of mid-tier, adult-oriented drama that certain sects of film fandom are often complaining don’t get made anymore. Is it going to be an awards darling? No. Is it a movie you can watch at home on a lazy weekday evening? Absolutely.

Other thoughts:

  • This film was shot in Vancouver and if you are local like I am it is almost distracting how little they try to make it look or feel like anywhere else, despite the film being set in Seattle.
  • Rob Morgan: great actor or greatest actor? Discuss.

The Unforgivable begins a limited theatrical run today, November 24th 2021, and will premiere globally on Netflix on December 10th


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