The Unforgivable might not offer anything that Netflix has never served us before, but its layered story and ferocious lead performance keep it alive.
With The Unforgivable, director Nora Findscheidt has crafted exactly the kind of film that you’ll watch one weekend afternoon when you’ve got nothing better to do, and then never really think about it again – and whilst this isn’t the most glowing compliment one can give to a film, it does what it sets out to do pretty effectively. It quickly develops an interesting story, draws you in with its high stakes and excessive melodrama, and rushes through at breakneck speed to its thrilling finale – then roll credits. It’s two hours of conventionally entertaining storytelling that more casual audiences are likely to lose themselves in for a short period of time, even if it probably won’t leave the longest impression.
Based on the 2009 miniseries The Unforgiven, the film follows troubled ex-con Ruth Slater (Sandra Bullock) as she attempts to reintegrate into the real world following her release from prison, seeking redemption for her crimes by searching for the sister she left behind. The film draws a lot of its intrigue and mystery from the character of Ruth, who lives her life with plenty of secrets and ulterior motives which gradually become clearer and clearer to the audience as the film progresses. There are plenty of interesting subplots that keep the momentum moving forward throughout, but it’s the scenes with Ruth and her journey that really keep us invested – despite the film’s many unsuccessful attempts to make us care about these somewhat empty and underdeveloped side characters.
The most glaring explanation for the film’s tendency to underutilise and underdevelop everything which isn’t crucial for the main story is its status as a TV adaptation. It’s incredibly difficult to translate the content and pacing of a series to a feature film, and The Unforgivable doesn’t quite make the changes and compromises necessary to uphold a suitable structure or narrative. Everything feels extremely rushed, the side-characters don’t feel important, and the unravelling of the central mystery in the third act is pretty underwhelming when you sit back and consider just how impactful it could have been, if given time to connect and empathise with these characters. It makes it even more disappointing that such an immense acting force like Viola Davis – whose performance here is expectedly phenomenal – is seemingly wasted on a character that doesn’t incite any real interest in the audience. It’s not that any part of the film is outwardly or insultingly bad, but its unwillingness to sacrifice any of the source material in favour of a more coherent screenplay turns it into a graveyard of wasted opportunities.
Easily the biggest strength of The Unforgivable, however, is Sandra Bullock. She brings everything she’s got to this role, and elevates the character so far above merely what is written on the page. Every second of screen time that she gets is perfectly unsettling and arresting, and the way that she sinks both her physicality and mentality deep into this character makes the story so much more compelling than it would have been without her. The moral ambiguity and unclear intentions of her character are what keeps the audience invested when the story starts to grind to a halt, and her restrained performance captures all of this internal conflict in a way that only a veteran actress like herself could accomplish. It’s a true achievement, and it’s definitely the aspect of the film that will continue to be talked about after the initial intrigue wears off.
It may be lacking that refreshing sense of originality that is often the key to bringing stories like this to life, but The Unforgivable is still a success for the most part. It’s exactly the kind of low-concept thriller that we’ve grown to expect from Netflix – simple, grounded and entertaining. It’s not the kind of movie that’s going to revolutionise your life, or change the way you look at cinema, but it’s perfectly fitting for a quick weekend watch when other options are running dry.
The Unforgivable will be released In Select Theaters November 24 and on Netflix December 10, 2021.