A woman is released from prison after serving a sentence for a violent crime and re-enters a society that refuses to forgive her past.
There’s an almost-not-quite quality to Nora Fingscheidt’s “The Unforgivable,” an adaptation of an English television series that keeps you engaged just enough throughout but ultimately leaves the viewer somewhat dissatisfied. Social penance and moral redemption are the themes that drive this well-intentioned feature that ticks all the boxes where an Oscar-bait film are concerned, its strong veteran cast making it seem better than it actually is.
Sandra Bullock is Ruth Slater, a woman who’s served a 20-year sentence for killing a police officer. The circumstances around this event are kept purposely vague but as various flashbacks are employed over the course of the movie, we come to see that perhaps the public’s perception of this high-profile event and what actually happened are quite different.
No matter, Slater knows once branded as a cop-killer, it’s hard to shake and try as she might to keep this under wraps, it eventually comes out, much to her detriment, as violent confrontations at her new workplace and other instances of social ostracization occur. Of course, she has no choice but to persevere, finding a dissatisfying menial job, a worthwhile community project and a potential new relationship with Blake (Jon Bernthal) to fill her days.
Still, the past haunts her and when she visits her former home where the killing took place and meets lawyer John Ingram (Vincent D’Onofrio), his wife (Viola Davis) and their own children, old memories are brought to the fore and many narrative complications ensue. Hoping desperately to be reunited with her younger sister Katie (Aisling Franciosi), who’s been adopted by Michael and Rachel Malcolm (Richard Thomas and Linda Emond), she convinces Ingram to help her approach the family. It doesn’t go well.
Oh, and did I mention Steve and Keith Whelen (Will Pullen and Tom Guiry), the sons of the police office Slater killed? They’re none too happy she’s out and about, enjoying life while their father lies cold in the ground. Their ire steadily increases to the point that they consider doing her harm.
Yeah, there are a lot of moving parts and it’s easy to see how a story with this many separate plotlines would have been developed more fully over the length of a 10-episode series. Here, it all seems rushed and a trifle contrived. Actions and thoughts such as those the characters experience require time to develop and reach fruition but a sense of expediency and a two-hour running time prevent such nuances to exist. The overall credibility of the film suffers as a result.
And yet, the conviction with which the cast collectively brings to their roles keeps us on the hook. While it would be easy to write off Bullock’s performance as a one-note turn, she brings a subtle complexity to the character that has us in Slater’s corner. D’Onofrio and Davis are good in everything they do and that’s no exception here, the only complaint being I wish they had a few more scenes together. The same goes with Thomas, Emond and their respective characters.
However, the tipping point occurs with a big reveal and desperate twist that occurs in the third act. Both are out of left field, each of such impact that a movie can only handle one turn of this magnitude before shattering our sense of disbelief. In the end, it’s just a bit too clever for its own good, Fingscheidt opting for sensationalism rather than a dose of realism. I don’t think viewers’ collectively rolling their eyes was the result she was intending.
2 1/2 Stars