Boasting an all-star cast, The Unforgivable follows Ruth Slater (Sandra Bullock), a woman released from prison after serving time for a violent crime. In her search for the family she left behind, she faces harsh backlash and judgement from the town she once called home.
If it wasn’t clear from the poster, premise or trailer, anyone looking for something upbeat is certainly not going to find that here. The Unforgivable is a dark and dreary drama/crime thriller right from the get-go. It opens on a very sombre note and carries that right through to the end, putting Ruth through the wringer in terms of how tough it is for her to get her life back on track. Some people will be turned off by the at-times depressing nature of the film, but the tone really works for the narrative being told. As the narrative unfolds, you learn more and more about the event that put Ruth in prison, what her life was like beforehand, and how her time spent locked up has shaped who she is today. It’s a light character study of sorts, depicting the pain, heartbreak and loss Ruth experiences in her determination to turn things around and reconnect with her family.
Once the film introduces all the main players and gives you enough of the main backstory to understand the basics of Ruth’s character, it becomes a gripping journey that keeps you locked in with various mysteries and the occasional crime-drama thrill. Some story beats are expected, especially for this genre, but there’s also great writing within that makes The Unforgivable stand out from the crowd – with a couple of key moments and narrative reveals that are very well executed. From a storytelling point of view, and even a pacing point of view, I have no complaints. It’s a great story that feels very grounded, gritty and real, giving us a more realistic look into the life of an ex-convict – one that feels like it’s based on a true story, but is entirely fictional. The writing is so strong throughout the first and second acts, that as it came to the climax of the film, it could have ended in almost any way and I’d have been completely satisfied with the journey. That just goes to show how well they flesh out Ruth’s character and the relationships she forms along the way.
Speaking of Ruth, Sandra Bullock leads with a top notch performance. Her character doesn’t speak a whole lot, especially in the first half of the film, but she finds a way to make a huge impact nonetheless. Fully committing to the role, she does a brilliant job at depicting just how damaged Ruth is simply through her physical performance alone, adopting a very deadpan look for the majority of the film. Then when she has her moments to shine, she delivers some powerful dialogue that enhances the emotional weight of the story and gets you even more invested in her character. The Unforgivable also stars Viola Davis in a supporting role, and despite her limited screen time – she makes a great impact across each of her scenes. One scene in particular sees Sandra Bullock and Viola Davis going back and forth in an emotionally-charged dispute, resulting in one of the best moments in the film – the type of scene you’d see play before an Oscars nomination.
With the likes of Vincent D’Onofrio and Jon Bernthal rounding out the all-star cast, there’s plenty to love about the performances in here. You can’t go five minutes without some sort of quality acting on-screen. The two actors and characters I didn’t really respond to are Will Pullen and Tom Guiry, who play brothers Steve and Keith in the film. Performance-wise they were okay, but the writing for the characters could have been a little sharper. I understood the role they had to play in the story, but their decision-making could have been explored and developed a little more to not feel as cliché and spontaneous. In comparison to the general realism that the rest of the film is steeped in, their journey felt the most contrived and “movie-like”.
The other element that works really well and elevates the overall tension is the emotional weight of the story, enhanced by the performances and even in Hans Zimmer’s and David Fleming’s score. There’s no question that by the end you care about Ruth’s journey and the supporting characters she’s connected to – which goes to show that the writers were successful in their goals and director Nora Fingscheidt brings everything together well to heighten that emotion.
In the end, The Unforgivable is a great, thoroughly enjoyable watch, capitalising on the darker tone to create a crime drama filled with intrigue, tension and emotion. It moves at an appropriately slow pace, taking the time to really paint a picture of Ruth’s life, her past experiences and the struggles she’s facing now. So if the slow pace kind of crime drama isn’t your thing, then this may not be either. There was some fear that the film would be something very familiar in structure and story, but the writing across the board is great – with only a couple of minor gripes in what is otherwise a gripping narrative. Capped off with a couple of brilliant A-list performances, there’s much to love about this Netflix release.