“The Unforgivable” has a lot of plot to sell you – even more than I think is wise. That doesn’t change the fact that it does so exquisitely. Based on a British series from 2009, “The Unforgivable” stars Sandra Bullock as Ruth Slater. She’s just been released early from prison, after serving 20 years of her sentence for the murder of a police officer. Ruth tries to jump-start a new life while tracking down her sister Katie, who was five when Ruth was arrested.
This is the bare premise for what follows. I went in expecting an examination of the experience of an ex-con trying to rebuild her life and reconnect with family. The ex-con and family legal drama genres are there, but the scope of “The Unforgivable” expands well beyond that. It reaches into an investigation of trauma and sacrifice, but also into the bounds of thriller.
Director Nora Fingscheidt helmed one of the best films of 2020, “System Crasher”. That film followed a young girl with rage issues who had exhausted every resource the social system had to care for her. She became a danger within group homes and with foster families alike, so she was shunted from one place to another. As each reached its limit and passed her on, she became unable to form permanent or stable bonds.
Despite the narrative being very linear, Fingscheidt tells that film in a dual manner. She has command of a documentarian, clinical approach to depicting systems. She meets this with an eye for sensory expression: departures through visuals and syncopation in editing that draw us extremely close to the kind of protagonist we might not otherwise seek out.
That’s on show in “The Unforgivable” as well. The system Ruth navigates is bluntly, clinically depicted. As the audience, we see that story in order, but her experience within all this is a jumble of memories, tensions, and anticipations introduced out of order. In this way, Fingscheidt delivers a linear narrative and a nonlinear emotional experience.
This is merged with an incredibly internalized performance by Bullock. There are moments of explosion and outburst, sure, but for the most part Ruth is contents under pressure. The tension in the film isn’t about seeing her burst, it’s about wondering how she hasn’t yet. The tumultuous moments are well acted, but it’s all those other moments of emotional suppression that define the film.
Bullock has a rare ability to carry movies almost single-handedly (just see “Gravity”). Here, she’s constantly surrounded by people, but her performance feels no less isolated or desperate. It’s among her best performances, if not her best work altogether.
The film’s written well in terms of its moment-to-moment dialogue. It carries multiple threads efficiently. As for the direction the plot takes, it can feel like a ride that jerks you back and forth a few times too many. The amount of cushion for this is going to vary by viewer. A subplot about the children of the police officer Ruth killed – now grown up and seeking revenge – feels like it visits from a less realistic universe.
In the hands of a lesser director, or lesser actors, the number of left turn additions would collapse the whole thing. Yet Bullock is joined by Jon Bernthal, Viola Davis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Rob Morgan, and Aisling Franciosi, among an even larger ensemble cast that more than pulls its weight.
Every revelation too far or late genre shift too many is so perfectly anchored by the performances and filmmaking that I was willing to go along. Pushing around suspension of disbelief as you go is a tricky maneuver, but there’s such an ample well of talent on tap that tension and motivation are pretty well maintained. The intrigue to know what happens next, and how it’s acted and told, outpaces the deluge of plot development.
I did find myself questioning whether these extra shifts were really needed, but I think the film ultimately pulls them off. The initial pitch can seem like “Maid” without the (admittedly well-done) sentimentality, especially when talking about the contrast between an uncaring systemic experience and the personal emotional experience. I don’t think this comparison lasts long, though.
“The Unforgivable” reminds me of a very different genre that nonetheless uses a similar narrative structure. We don’t have to look further than Ben Affleck’s early directing career in “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town”, or to Scott Cooper’s rustbelt noir “Out of the Furnace”, to see other good films that share a similar mentality of excess additions and twists within an otherwise deeply realized, practical, and gritty world. I’d say “The Unforgivable” is better than at least two of these.
There are some key differences. Fingscheidt’s direction doesn’t go toward noir. While all three directors have a keen interest in people screwed over by the system, Fingscheidt’s is the only one that really communicates a clear view of what that system is beyond plot impetus. Furthermore, at least in “The Town” and “Out of the Furnace”, anger at that system merely serves as an excuse for violence. I’d say in “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Unforgivable”, there’s a deeper contemplation of the messy intersection between idealism, accomplishing change, and mitigating harm. Fingscheidt did the homework in substance and not just style.
There’s a lot of behind-the-scenes talent at work here, too. Guillermo Navarro was Guillermo Del Toro’s go-to cinematographer for the first two-thirds of his career. This includes work like “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone”, and there’s a similar visual sense of empathy for traumatized characters whose ability to express themselves is stunted and discouraged.
Hans Zimmer joins David Fleming in composing an exceptional score. Fingscheidt’s “System Crasher” editor Stephan Bechinger is joined by Denis Villeneuve’s go-to editor Joe Walker. It’s a blend of sensibilities that works beautifully to create a unique rhythm.
Fingscheidt’s vision for fusing such different approaches is what makes the unwieldy scope of “The Unforgivable” work. Bullock’s performance is spellbinding without ever letting us into this walled-off, incredibly internalized character. It’s not the sort of thing we’ve seen from her before. A performance like that needs Fingscheidt’s ability to present a narrative in two simultaneous tones: the clinical, systemic, and linear joined with the personal, chaotic, and expressive.
Putting these two elements together is what makes the film special. “The Unforgivable” constantly has to find a way to communicate what Bullock won’t, and it connects these fragments beautifully. Does it heap too much plot on and ask too much of your suspension of disbelief? Viewers will have different answers to that question, and that sheds light on the different ways we watch movies.
If your suspension of disbelief and your interest in the emotionally expressive half of the film are both pliable enough to meet, there can be a relatively smooth handover between them. For viewers who treat one or the other of these with more rigidity or definition, there’s a greater gap to cross. Instead of serving the film, that dissonance can be its breaking point for you. You probably have a very good idea which type of viewer you tend to be, and whether you like movies that cross those boundaries or stay within them.
You can watch “The Unforgivable” on Netflix.
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