The Unforgivable 2021 Movie Review
Decidedly unchristmassy is Netflix’s December debut The Unforgivable, starring Sandra Bullock and based on the 2009 ITV series Unforgiven.
The film follows convicted felon Ruth Slater (Bullock), who has just been released from prison having served 20 years for killing a sheriff.
Through a series of overwrought flashbacks, we learn that Ruth was living in her home alone with her much younger sister, Katherine. The police were called to enforce her eviction but refusing to leave the property, Ruth shoots the sheriff.
Ruth is the gravitational centre of the film and around her swirl the lives of the other people impacted by the death of the sheriff: his sons, her little sister, and the family who have moved into her old house. Each travels on its own trajectory until colliding in a slightly confusing but still predictable way.
This dichotomy is the backbone and deepest flaw within The Unforgivable. Ruth is inherently unlikeable, and therefore unforgivable because for us to forgive we have to believe that the person we’re forgiving truly feels remorse.
In a stroke of rather ingenious reality-based characterisation, Ruth is painted as both a victim and a villain. With so much of her life having been derailed, she isn’t able to function in the ‘normal’ world, and she bumbles through her life with aggression and anger.
Unfortunately, this leads to a one-note performance that gets either louder or quieter depending on what scene Bullock features in. When we learn the depths of her trauma, it doesn’t serve to reframe her actions or her personality.
The Unforgivable does attempt to unravel the complexity of where the penal system and white supremacy intersect through Viola Davis’ Liz, who states it refreshingly plainly to her white lawyer husband John (Vincent D’Onofrio): if either of their sons had been in Ruth’s position, they would be dead – not out after 20 years, free to live their lives.
Ruth isn’t quite free, but it’s hard not to find yourself slightly annoyed by the pitfalls she creates for herself and how obviously she steps in them. This obviousness also plagues the dynamic between the dead sheriff’s sons, who are either trying to move on from or get revenge for their father’s murder, and the flip-flopping feels like a plot device more than any trauma-based decision making.
The one light spot is Jon Bernthal’s Blake, a coworker of Ruth’s who plays in a rock n’ roll band – or did, anyway. He may only have a few minutes of total screen time, and his character arc is nonexistent, but he is the only character who doesn’t interact with the outside world from a place of anger.
As stand-alone performances, Bernthal and Davis stand out for their ability to create depth with not a lot of dialogue or screentime. Bullock imbues as much multilayered expression as she can through her eyes since the dialogue doesn’t do her any favours in the nuance or complexity department.
Then there’s the sheer morosity of it. While the film never presents itself as inching towards comedy, The Unforgivable is entirely subsumed by dourness and being self-earnest, bittersweet melancholia, that encroaches somehow bewilderingly on schmaltzy.
It’s unrelenting, but not in the way some well-crafted dramas can be – when you find yourself emotionally exhausted, but also fulfilled. Instead, The Unforgivable spins its melodramatic wheels towards an inevitable final act that doesn’t feel earned, burning us out along the way.