When Nora Fingscheidt’s sophomore feature, The Unforgivable, slowly grinds to a conclusion after 114 grueling minutes of indecisive storytelling, one question lingers unanswered: Just who the hell is the title referring to? Who in this film is utterly beyond redemption? Who screws up so badly that, when all’s said and done and Netflix zaps the screen down to the size of a sticky note and cajoles you into queuing up the next round of content slop, they aren’t worth a second chance? Who can’t, who shan’t, we forgive?
Fingscheidt’s not telling. We have to guess for ourselves. Is it Ruth (Sandra Bullock), the martyr and mama bear putting herself through a meat grinder to protect her loved one? Steve Whelan (Will Pullen), son of the late Sheriff Mac Whelan (W. Earl Brown), itching to avenge his dad’s slaying years prior to the film’s events? Michael and Rachel Malcolm (Richard Thomas and Linda Emond), the greatest obstacles standing between Ruth and her long-lost sister, Katie (Aisling Franciosi), whom they adopted following a childhood tragedy she’s mercifully forgotten? Is the American penal system unforgivable? Is hiring Viola Davis for about ten minutes of screen time unforgivable?
Maybe compressing a TV series down into cinema is the greatest crime here; The Unforgivable’s countless structural problems make that case without even trying. Fingscheidt—along with screenwriters Peter Craig, Hillary Seitz and Courtenay Miles—has adapted The Unforgivable from Sally Wainwright’s 2009 British miniseries Unforgiven, without pausing to consider the differences between mediums and the tricks to remaking television into a movie. Wainwright chose her platform. So did Fingscheidt, in all fairness, but picking the movies as a vehicle for the same narrative requires forethought and appreciation for what defines “the movies.” Self-containment is key, and The Unforgivable can’t contain itself.
The product of the exercise unsurprisingly reads as episodic. Ruth, out of prison and on parole, visits the home she grew up in with Katie; meets the current homeowners, Liz (Viola Davis) and lawyer John Ingram (Vincent D’Onofrio); and asks John to contact the Malcolms in hopes of seeing Katie again. Concurrently, Steve and his dopey brother Keith (Tom Guiry), clash over how to feel about Ruth’s freedom: Ruth was in prison for killing their dad in a heated encounter over Katie’s safety. Keith wants revenge. Steve keeps a cooler head and advocates a “live and let live” policy, which naturally means he’s really the more dangerous of the two. Additionally concurrently, Katie is convalescing at home after suffering a stress-induced blackout and causing a major car accident.
That’s a lot of A-plot. The Unforgivable piles on incident to such effect that the film functions like an object lesson in where TV and movies diverge: TV has the legroom to tell not just a story, but every story, and the movies don’t. Giving half the cast a spotlight has the unintended effect of suggesting they’re all interesting when they aren’t, which dilutes their characters and renders those A-plots perfunctory. A version of The Unforgivable seen through Ruth’s perspective alone may have worked better, because what movies often do better than TV is insert audiences firmly into a character’s POV. Fingscheidt considers the macro without taking the necessary time to exhale. This is a movie about how America views convicts as people to be avoided instead of reintegrated into society. That’s a fascinating subject worth digging into, but The Unforgivable lazily paws around the surface.
And then the kidnapping B-plot kicks in. The movie is barely on the rails before Fingscheidt throws this graceless curveball; the melodrama over Ruth’s misdeed is predicated on a badly telegraphed third-act reveal, because what we see in repetitive soft focus flashbacks clearly withholds the full truth of what actually happened in Ruth and Katie’s past. Once that B-plot’s in play, though, The Unforgivable shifts from lazy to appalling. Want to make a thriller? Make a thriller. Want to make a character study orbiting one woman’s hardships couched in the mechanics of America’s criminal justice system? Make that instead. It’s possible for cinema to weave this many themes and concerns together into one cohesive film. The Unforgivable simply doesn’t.
Director: Nora Fingscheidt
Writer: Peter Craig, Hillary Seitz, Courtenay Miles
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jon Bernthal, Will Pullen, Aisling Franciosi, Viola Davis, Linda Emond, Richard Thomas, Rob Morgan, Tom Guiry, W. Earl Brown
Release Date: November 24, 2021 (theaters); December 10, 2021 (Netflix)
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.