Stymied by an overstretched and underwrought screenplay, The Unforgivable lacks the complexity that makes most post-prison movies so compelling, but features a handful of strong performances led by star Sandra Bullock.
It’s the Oscar-winner’s second film in a row for Netflix, but couldn’t be more different from the first, Bird Box, which became one of the earliest examples of a ‘viral movie’ when it debuted in 2018. Although it can be argued that The Unforgivable, despite being set in a recognisable reality, is nearly as dour as that post-apocalyptic film.
Just like Bird Box, The Unforgivable asks Bullock to play a matriarchal figure; the latest in her remarkably successful run as on-screen moms after her brilliant career as America’s Sweetheart. When we first meet Ruth, she is in the process of being released from prison, where, we are told, she spent around two decades for a violent crime. Ruth’s probation officer drives her to a halfway house in stern silence, and instructs her to immediately find work and put her past behind her.
But that’s easier said than done. Ruth isn’t so much burdened by her past as she is moulded by it. It defines her existence and informs every decision she makes. Her past is the only reason she doesn’t have a future. So forgive her when she says, in no uncertain terms, that she cannot simply bury it.
In flashbacks scattered throughout the narrative like breadcrumbs in a dense forest, director Nora Fingscheidt reveals what happened. This detail is also spoiled in the trailer, although the nature of Ruth’s crime hardly matters. Knowing that it was bad enough for a jury of her peers to send her away for two decades—bad enough for an entire community to ostracise her after she has served her time—is enough.
Morally, though, The Unforgivable isn’t nearly as challenging as, say, The Woodsman, an underseen film that had the gall to ask you to sympathise with a child molester fresh out of prison, and actual skill to back this unreasonable request. Or even Boy A, which has one of Andrew Garfield’s best performances. That film also used flashbacks to unveil the magnitude of a convict’s crimes. Garfield’s character, it was eventually revealed, had killed a child in his youth. That’s a difficult one to come back from.
By ending on a predictably cathartic note, The Unforgivable sort of undermines itself, and in a strange way, mocks its own title. Of course, Ruth can be forgiven. Especially after you’ve experienced the plot twist with which the movie ends. It’s worth noting, at this point, that Fingscheidt and her team of writers—Peter Craig, Hillary Seitz, and Courtenay Miles—have retained this ‘twist’ from the original British miniseries on which the film is based. The wise move would’ve been to alter it.
In Boy A, it is an act of kindness through which Garfield’s character inadvertently draws attention to himself. That’s dramatic irony. In The Unforgivable, the spotlight finds its way to Ruth by itself, despite her best efforts to stay under the radar. And when it does, the ramifications play out exactly like you’d expect them to.
Characters that had shown her compassion moments ago are suddenly suspicious of her. Once a convict, always a convict. And while these abrupt behavioural changes are often too extreme to be believable, in the wonky world of this movie—where people don’t really behave like people, but as exaggerated archetypes—they make perverse sense.
At the very least, The Unforgivable gives both Vincent D’Onofrio and Jon Bernthal an opportunity to play characters that they normally don’t. They appear in supporting turns as stand-up guys who see Ruth as the wounded animal that she is, and offer to dress her—in Bernthal’s case, quite literally. But the film does Oscar-winner Viola Davis a disservice. In a blatant effort to replicate the kind of strategy that has resulted in her earning Academy Award nominations for minimal screen time (but maximum effort), The Unforgivable gives Davis a scene with which she can launch into one of her famous spittle-fuelled rages. But nobody bothered to actually make the scene convincing, narratively. It is so outrageously hokey that neither Davis nor Bullock can ground it in a believable reality.
The scene represents the central problems with The Unforgivable—it’s a pointed attempt at Oscars glory, with top-tier talent both in front of behind the camera. But they’re all let down by a screenplay that simply isn’t operating at their level.
The Unforgivable movie director: Nora Fingscheidt
The Unforgivable movie cast: Sandra Bullock, Viola Davis, Jon Bernthal, Vincent D’Onofrio, Rob Morgan, Aisling Franciosi
The Unforgivable movie rating: 3 stars