The Unforgivable, review: Sandra Bullock’s new redemption drama feels 10 years out of date

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Sandra Bullock in The Unforgivable - Kimberley French/Netflix
Sandra Bullock in The Unforgivable - Kimberley French/Netflix
  • Cert TBC, 112 min. Dir: Nora Fingscheid

The Unforgivable has been a decade, plus a six-month Covid delay, in the making. It’s based on a 2009 ITV drama called Unforgiven, a 3-part vehicle for Suranne Jones, which was swiftly pitched to Angelina Jolie, with Christopher McQuarrie meant to direct. It’s been picked up and dropped repeatedly since, until Sandra Bullock decided in 2019 to produce and star. Halfway through production last spring, shooting was postponed, then polished off last autumn.

Knowing all these stop-start circumstances is the only way to make sense of a strange, broken film which never ties its story satisfactorily together: actors in the supporting cast come and go according to curious screenwriting whims that leave us scratching our heads. It’s never outright bad – not unforgivably so – but comes off muted, diffuse and generally half-baked.

Much as she did in Ocean’s 8, Bullock, in the role of convicted cop-killer Ruth Slater, gets out of prison at the start, and needs to figure out a life plan while she’s on parole. Glitzy heists at the Met Gala are not on the agenda: here she’s a pariah, looking stony and brutalised by her own backstory, which involves a younger sister, Katie (Aisling Franciosi), whom she essentially raised after their father killed himself.

Whatever happened when a sheriff came knocking on their door is half-remembered, and bittily disclosed to us in the kind of wafty, shallow-focus flashbacks much beloved of TV directors on series like Sharp Objects. Somehow, resorting to these in a two-hour feature makes the film seem suspiciously shortcut-fond from the outset.

Still, there’s a certain intrigue gained at first by us simply puzzling out what’s going on. Katie, who has amnesia about her childhood, has been fostered by a nice bourgeois couple (Richard Thomas and Linda Emond) who are keen to protect her from any contact from Ruth; meanwhile, two sons of the murdered sheriff (Will Pullen and Tom Guiry) argue about gunning for revenge.

Sandra Bullock and Rob Morgan in The Unforgivable - Kimberley French/Netflix
Sandra Bullock and Rob Morgan in The Unforgivable - Kimberley French/Netflix

As for Ruth herself, she takes a job in a salmon processing plant, where she keeps her head down. The only person who gets through to her is a well-meaning, underwritten colleague played by a faintly helpless Jon Bernthal.

For the film’s dramatic stakes to work, nothing imaginable in this Seattle setting is worse than the stigma of having shot a police officer – another respect in which last summer, and the whole conversation around American law enforcement, has had the unfortunate effect of making this story look very white and 10 years out of date.

The Unforgivable tries its hand at being a variety of movies at once, a sort of issue-woven crime drama with some threads entangled and others just flapping around. Vincent D’Onofrio and Viola Davis play the new owners of the Slaters’ rural manse, who would have nothing to do with anything if Ruth didn’t pitch up in their front yard to torment herself with inklings of the past. To help her regain a relationship with her sister, D’Onofrio takes on her legal case pro bono. And Davis? She’s just a puzzling bystander, who happens to be Ruth’s sounding board when the big twist (which is easily guessed) lands just before the dénouement.

As an English-language project for German director Nora Fingscheidt (System Crasher), this is all obfuscatory journeywork to patch up a script full of problems – it spends far more time pulling wool over our eyes than making the scenario shed any light.

You feel sorriest of all for Bullock, who surely went into it with the best of intentions, only to step into a glum morass of continuity crises. Ruth is more a (literal) punching bag than a compelling main character, gaining black eyes and split lips everywhere she turns, and clenching her One Big Secret long past the point where an audience truly understands her. There’s only so much Bullock can do to understand her either.

In cinemas and on Netflix now

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