It’s no surprise that Nora Fingscheidt’s “The Unforgivable” is based on a British miniseries (2009’s “Unforgiven,” to be exact), as this Sandra Bullock ex-con drama about a woman released into the merciless cold of Snohomish, Wisconsin, after a 20-year murder stint is gray enough to seem like it still has one foot planted in Yorkshire. What is surprising, however, is that the ITV show had a cumulative runtime of only 135 minutes, a curious factoid when you consider that Fingscheidt’s version — a Netflix movie which runs just 21 minutes shorter than its source material — is so patchy and spread thin that you’d sooner guess it was trimmed down from a sprawling eight-hour epic.
“The Unforgivable” could have been a beat-for-beat remake of the original without any significant difference to its budget or distribution, and yet
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Which isn’t to say that Fingschedit — a German filmmaker looking to capitalize on her volatile 2019 debut “System Crasher” — shouldn’t be commended for taking the road less traveled, even if the shortcut that screenwriters Peter Craig, Courtenay Miles, and Hillary Seitz have mapped out for her ultimately leads nowhere fast. As you might surmise from its leaden title, “The Unforgivable” is a story about the sins that people carry, and the challenge of living with them in a world that may never let someone put them down even after they’ve “paid their debt to society.”
To that end, Fingscheidt’s wobbly take is unstuck in time from the moment it starts, with mysterious snippets of memory littered across the opening scene — and many of the ones that follow — like clues to a homicide that’s already been solved. We first meet Ruth Slater (a dead-eyed Bullock sporting a novocaine stare) as she leaves the maximum-security jail that she’s called home for the last two decades. The particulars of what put her there remain oblique until the bitter end, but Ruth’s parole officer (a viscerally anguished Rob Morgan, lending this film a pinch of emotional credibility right off the hop) is kind enough to mention that Ruth killed a cop, and will be seen as a cop-killer everywhere she goes. Ruth seems prepared for that, and swears through gritted teeth that she isn’t planning to seek amends. Since contacting the victim’s family would violate the terms of her release, Ruth has little hope of renovating her old life; she intends on using the carpentry skills she picked up in prison to build herself a new one instead. Good luck with all that.
Doomed to failure as that idea might be, it seems to be going pretty well at first. Ruth talks her way into a construction job at a local homeless shelter, though she’s understandably afraid of telling her boss about how she got so crafty; despite acknowledging several of the lifelong socio-economic consequences of being an ex-con in America, “The Unforgivable” meaningfully explores almost none of them. The shift operator at Ruth’s other gig already knows her backstory, and the nice guy across the assembly line doesn’t seem to care that much, though complications will crop up there, too (he’s played by Jon Bernthal, whose screen presence is so potent that he’s able to summon an entire subplot out of a few errant lines).
But “The Unforgiven” never pretends that Ruth has been, well, forgiven, and the movie stumbles over any number of the ominous hurdles standing between its heroine and her absolution. Some, such as the glimpses of a college-age girl (“The Nightingale” breakout Aisling Franciosi) recovering from a car wreck, tend toward the oblique.
Others, like the plot strand devoted to the dead sheriff’s large adult sons — who get mixed up in their own domestic mishegoss while waiting on the sidelines — are more immediately understandable. The fallout from their father’s murder is meant to make Frick and Frack a bit more sympathetic (and their anger more justified), but their shared thematic purpose is overwhelmed by the narrative threat they pose. A better film might have slowed down to measure these characters for their emotional armor, and lament the vulnerabilities they expose themselves to as it’s peeled off in the wake of Ruth’s release, but these men are largely reduced to ominous shots of them creeping on Ruth from a distance and thinking bad thoughts. They’re human manifestations of David Fleming and Hans Zimmer’s ultra-generic thriller score — needless, needling reminders that this film’s tangled knot of a story will turn violent by the time it’s done.
And then there’s the lawyer couple Ruth meets when she goes poking around her old house (Vincent D’Onofrio and Viola Davis, both effective but overqualified), who hint at how Ruth will allow herself to be sucked back into her past. She didn’t have parents, but has she forfeited the right to have siblings? Have they been denied the chance to have her? If the prison system turns everyone it touches into pariahs, releasing convicts back into the population seems like punishment enough for their crimes.
But this erratic and emotionally diluted film is less interested in putting the justice system on trial than it is in exploring the painful ways that people fight to protect themselves and their families against the fact that life goes on, even if not for everyone. The answers are all too obvious, even as Fingscheidt strains for unexpected ways of presenting them to us. Ruth’s past grows increasingly parallel to the present as “The Unforgivable” takes stock of her guilt, the film building to a climax defined by almost Nolan-esque levels of temporal cross-cutting as a crime and its punishment are laid together side-by-side and scored to a diegetic piano cover of Radiohead’s “Everything in its Right Place.”
On paper, it’s the stuff of a bracingly cinematic take on the kind of twisty small-town murder story that shows like “Happy Valley” and “Mare of Easttown” have made old hat. In practice, mincing up the miniseries’ plot without losing any of its main ingredients — and even adding several new ones to the mix, including a whopper of a third act twist that turns Ruth into a martyr and all but completely erodes the movie’s emotional core — results in an undercooked stew that isn’t given the time it needs to find any real flavor of its own. Poor Ruth spent 20 years in jail waiting for absolution, and yet by the end of “The Unforgivable,” audience won’t be able help but feel like she fell about 21 minutes short of earning it.
“The Unforgivable” is now playing in theaters. It will be available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, December 10.
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