I have to say that during this pandemic, in which I haven’t been to the theater to see a movie since March 2020, Netflix has been churning out some pretty darn good movies with some really impressive casts.
Their latest, THE UNFORGIVABLE (2021), stars Sandra Bullock as an ex-con just out of prison trying to contact the baby sister she had to leave behind after she was charged with murdering a local sheriff, in what is one of Bullock’s best acting performances to date.
THE UNFORGIVABLE opens with Ruth Slater (Sandra Bullock) leaving prison after serving a twenty-year prison sentence for murder. Her parole officer Vincent Cross (Rob Morgan) sets her up with a job at a fish factory and reminds her that she cannot have any contact with her estranged sister Katherine (Aisling Franciosi) who has no memory of her and is now living with an adoptive family, Michael (Richard Thomas) and Rachel Malcolm (Linda Emond) and their daughter Emily (Emma Nelson).
But Ruth can’t forget her sister, and so eventually she hires a lawyer John Ingram (Vincent D’Onofrio) to contact Katherine’s adoptive parents in order to set up a dialogue in the hope of some day re-entering Katherine’s life. In the meantime, life for Ruth is exceedingly difficult. We learn through flashbacks that Ruth’s mother died giving birth to Katherine, and so Ruth raised her, as their father was pretty much useless. And after he committed suicide, she lost the farmhouse in which they lived, and when the sheriff’s department arrived to evict them, that’s when she shot and killed the sheriff.
Now as an ex-con and a cop killer, she has a target on her back, and her life is constantly threatened, not only from society, but more specifically from the two adult sons of the sheriff she murdered, who have vowed to do whatever it takes to get back at her.
While I have seen better written stories than the one told in THE UNFORGIVABLE, I really enjoyed this movie all the same. The biggest reason? The exceptional acting performances by everyone involved, starting with Sandra Bullock.
The last time we saw Bullock, she was also excellent in the apocalyptic horror movie BIRD BOX (2018), but her acting here in THE UNFORGIVABLE is on a whole other level. Bullock has enjoyed a long and varied career, going waaay back to the action thriller SPEED (1994), and she has certainly had her share of dramatic performances, in such movies as THE BLIND SIDE (2009) and GRAVITY (2013), but here in THE UNFORGIVABLE she delivers a transformational performance in which she loses herself in the role and really becomes Ruth Slater. Her emotions are authentic and run deep.
She gets some powerhouse scenes here. One of the most memorable is a confrontation with her attorney’s wife Liz Ingram (Viola Davis) where she displays such raw emotion, she’ll leave you shaking.
And Bullock is helped by a veteran cast that adds a lot of support. I’m a big fan of Vincent D’Onofrio, and he’s wonderful as bleeding heart attorney John Ingram who against his better judgement decides to take Ruth’s case. Viola Davis plays his fiery wife Liz, who constantly reminds John that Ruth doesn’t have it as bad as she says she does, that she’s not a victim, and that her case cannot be compared to the black victims who face things far worse. It’s a relevant and true point which adds depth to the story.
It was fun to see Richard Thomas again, here playing Katherine’s adoptive father Michael. It had been so long since I’d seen Thomas in a movie that when I saw him on screen I thought, “that guy looks like Richard Thomas. Wait a minute. That is Richard Thomas!”
Linda Emond is equally as good as Michael’s wife Rachel. Jon Bernthal, another of my favorite actors working today, shows up as Blake, one of Ruth’s co-workers at the fish factory, who takes an obvious liking to Ruth. They start seeing each other, but when Ruth tells him the truth about her past, things change.
Rob Morgan is also really good as Ruth’s parole officer Vincent. And Will Pullen and Tom Guiry are sufficiently slimy as the brothers who want to make Ruth pay for their father’s death.
The screenplay by Peter Craig, Hillary Seitz, and Courtenay Miles tells a story that has the potential to lay things on pretty thick. Woe to the ex-convict, the sister who meant well and who wants to see her sister again. But it doesn’t play out this way. The writing keeps things low key, and the tone of this one fits in exactly with Ruth’s bitter and quiet demeanor. The story feels like one big headache, more than a heartache. Ruth exudes pain, and you can feel it. The story saves its emotional wallops for key scenes, and as a result, it all works. It also helps to have such talented actors anchoring the movie.
The effective screenplay should come as no surprise, as all three of these screenwriters have quality credits to their name. Peter Craig co-wrote the screenplay to the Ben Affleck thriller THE TOWN (2010). Hillary Seitz wrote the screenplay to the superior Christopher Nolan thriller INSOMINIA (2002) which starred Al Pacino, and Courtenay Miles worked on the screenplays to the exceptional Netflix TV show MINDHUNTER (2017-19).
Director Nora Fingscheidt takes advantage of the gloomy Seattle weather to help capture the mood of Ruth’s somber spirit. But Ruth is also a fighter who never gives up, and she proves this time and time again in this movie which is every bit about her determination to reunite with her sister as it is about society’s unforgiving nature towards ex-cons.
Fingscheidt frames Ruth’s story as a woman who is not a victim, but a fighter who is pushing back against a system that isn’t helping her, as well as against society at large, and against a specific threat in two brothers who would like to hurt her viciously and make her pay for her crime above and beyond what the law had deemed necessary and just.
As such, while Ruth is a fighter, she does have that target on her back, and so there is a sense of unease throughout the movie as you know that sooner or later, things are going to prove too much for her.
I was really impressed with THE UNFORGIVABLE, and it had me riveted to the screen throughout. Not a happy movie by any means, but it’s also not a movie that is depressing for the sake of manipulating emotions. It tells the story of a woman who served her time for her crime and only wants to see her sister. She has to struggle through a deplorable living situation, work two jobs, fight through a legal system that doesn’t do her any favors, and fend off those who want to harm her.
But through it all she remains driven and fearless in her attempt to reunite with her younger sister, which is no easy task, because for most people in society, the crime she committed was simply unforgivable.