Sandra Bullock has starred in only seven films in the last decade, and along with “Gravity” in 2013, her two most intriguing roles by far have been courtesy of the streaming giant Netflix: first with the smash hit horror film “Bird Box” (2018) and now with “The Unforgivable,” which has prestige credentials, a brilliant, A-list cast and a few moments of near-greatness, but is ultimately a disappointing and frustrating viewing experience due mostly to script and editing problems.
It feels like such a missed opportunity.
Adapted from the three-part British series by German director Nora Fingsheidt and in development for some 10 years before finally going into production, “The Unforgiven” is set in Washington state (with Vancouver ably filling in) and kicks off with Bullock’s Ruth Slater leaving prison after serving a 20-year sentence for murdering a beloved local police sheriff who was trying to mediate a confrontation between Ruth and bank representatives who had come to evict her and her younger sister Katherine from their home. (Ruth was Katherine’s sole guardian.)
Throughout the film, we see cryptic flashback sequences to that tragic day — sequences that cut off before we find out how everything played out. All we know is the sheriff was killed, Ruth took full responsibility for the crime, and she served two decades’ hard time — and now she’s out, living in a halfway house and working in a fish factory (and doing some part-time carpentry work, her specialty) while her by-the-book parole officer, Vincent (Rob Morgan), tells Ruth that under no circumstances should she try to make contact with Katherine.
Fat chance. Within days, Ruth shows up at the home where the tragedy occurred and is invited inside by the kindly attorney John Ingram (Vincent D’Onofrio) and his wife Liz (Viola Davis), who have no idea what transpired in their renovated house. Eventually Ruth confides at least some of the truth to John, who agrees to offer her legal help in her quest to find Katherine.
Meanwhile, the now 25-year-old Katherine (Aisling Franciosi) is a talented and sweet but fragile young woman who has no memories of the tragedy and in fact no memories of Ruth at all, even though she was 5 years old at the time. Katherine’s understandably protective adoptive parents (Richard Thomas and Linda Emond) have kept the truth from Katherine and her younger sister Emily (Emma Nelson), and now they’re living in fear Ruth will find them and do God knows what.
There’s a LOT going in “The Unforgivable,” and we haven’t yet touched on Ruth’s prospective romance with a goodhearted co-worker (and fellow con) named Blake (Jon Bernthal), not to mention the now-grown sons of the sheriff, brothers Keith and Steve Whelan (Tom Guiry and Will Pullen), who both would like to exact some sort of revenge on Ruth — though they have different ideas about how far they should take it. The Whelan brothers are essentially stalking Ruth while Ruth is trying to track down her sister, and we keep flashing back to that terrible day and we’re also wondering: Why didn’t the filmmakers just have Katherine be Ruth’s daughter? Sandra Bullock looks amazing at 57 and of course it’s possible for sisters to be more than three decades apart in age, but it’s an unnecessary distraction.(Also a bit strange: One of the brothers mistakes Katherine’s younger sister for Katherine, which means he has zero grasp of the timeline of his own life. It makes no sense.)
As you would expect, this cast is enormously effective, with Bullock turning in a layered, complex performance as Ruth, who is often her own worst enemy. (In one key scene, she loses it at the exact wrong time, seemingly sealing her own fate.) D’Onofrio and Bernthal are outstanding as good and decent men who might be in over the heads trying to help Ruth, while Viola Davis takes an underwritten role and makes it something special, particularly in one pivotal sequence when Liz calls out Ruth for her bull—-, and then learns some shocking truths.
We know “The Unforgivable” has a big reveal in store near the finish line, but we’ve pretty much figured out it has to be one of three things, and by then we’ve been through such a maze and been subjected to far too many manipulative flashbacks, and the final moments lack the dramatic punch the material promised.