Sandra Bullock transforms in the new Netflix film “The Unforgivable”, a drama based on a 2009 British miniseries penned by Sally Wainwright. The story centers around a woman trying to get her life back together after serving 20 years in prison for murdering a local sheriff. This is a showcase for Bullock who gets a nice meaty role to sink her teeth into. And while the story may unravel a bit in the end, Bullock’s performance is rock solid from start to finish.
The film marks the English language feature film debut for director Nora Fingscheidt. First announced back in 2010, “The Unforgivable” originally had Angelina Jolie attached to star and Christopher McQuarrie from the “Mission: Impossible” franchise set to write the script. But much changed in the nine years that followed with Fingscheidt and Bullock eventually coming onboard. They prove to be a good pair.
Bullock plays Ruth Slater who we first meet as she’s being released from prison. She’s met by her parole officer Vince Cross (the always great Rob Morgan) who goes over the conditions of her release and then drives her to an uninviting halfway house in Seattle’s Chinatown district. She learned carpentry while in prison, but she can’t escape the “cop killer” label and every construction job she applies for turns her down. So she ends up hacking up fish at a fish factory.
It doesn’t take much to see that Ruth is a complicated individual. Fingscheidt gives a lot of attention to her struggle to plug back into society. Her hardened exterior leads us to believe she’s tough enough to handle whatever she’s forced to face. But underneath the lack of connection begins to take its toll. Bullock does a great job conveying her character’s grit and her vulnerability.
But it’s Ruth’s past that tells us the most about her. Fingscheidt sprinkles in brief flashbacks that are like puzzle pieces, revealing the details of the event to sent Ruth to prison. We learn she had a five-year-old sister named Katherine who was present when she killed the sheriff. Now a young woman in her early twenties, Katherine (Aisling Franciosi) lives with her loving foster parents Michael and Rachel Malcolm (Richard Thomas and Linda Emond). She remembers nothing about her old life, but she does have these fragments of memory that she’s unable to decipher.
Despite a very firm “no contact” order from the court, Ruth immediately sets out to reconnect with Katherine or at least to find out if she’s okay. On her journey she encounters a number of people including Liz and John Ingram (Viola Davis and Vincent D’Onofrio), the couple who now own Ruth’s old house. She also meets Blake (Jon Bernthal), her super chatty co-worker at the fish plant who immediately takes a liking to her.
But there’s also Steve (Will Pullen) and Keith (Tom Guiry), the two embittered sons of the man Ruth killed. A flat and hard to buy side-story about the two brothers slowly unfolds, doing more to distract than add compelling layers to the story. Their angle is a misfire that never feels in tune with the rest of the movie.
Most of story (written by the trio of Peter Craig, Hillary Seitz, and Courtenay Miles) does a good job weaving in the numerous supporting characters. Some play bigger parts in Ruth’s journey while others only have bit parts (I would have loved more of Viola Davis). But it all comes back to Bullock who pours herself into her role, physically and emotionally embodying a character full of complexities. And while the ending undermines much of the gritty authenticity from earlier in the film, Bullock’s performance keeps us centered while reminding us of how good she can be with the right material. “The Unforgivable” premieres on Netflix December 10th.