I think it was Gene Siskel who once famously said, “Most movies aren’t thumbs up or down. Their thumbs sideways.” It’s the little things that move the scale one way or another. Now I don’t use a rating system, I find them all too reductive in the age of the internet, but I found myself thinking about that during The Unforgivable.
Nora Fingscheidt’s film has slivers of a great movie sticking out of almost every frame. At times, The Unforgivable broaches upon some serious and heady complex ideas, much of which we find ourselves as a country currently grappling. Yet, by the end, the screenplay by Peter Craig, Hillary Seitz, and Courtenay Miles can’t resist a trite and forced reveal that is not only pointless but undermines everything the film has accomplished up to that point.
Based on a British Miniseries called Unforgiven, The Unforgivable looks at the complex eroded justice system and the toll it takes on the lives of the people caught up in the machinery, both the offenders and the survivors. Along the way, it also examines the way race and class factor into the outcomes but manages to do so mainly without stopping the film dead in its tracks.
Fingscheidt has amassed a cast for The Unforgivable filled with character actors and movie stars. There’s not a bad performance in the bunch. Every performance is spot on and emotionally grounded, even when the movie starts to wobble and leave the tracks. Even Fingscheidt’s direction is solid throughout.
The movie concerns itself with Ruth Slater, who is being released early for good behavior. However, she is in prison for killing a cop. She killed him because she was trying to keep the bank from taking her house. Calling the movie “topical” is an understatement.
But this is no Grapes of Wrath, Bullock’s Ruth is no Tom Joad, and neither Fingscheidt and her writers are John Steinbeck. To their credit, I don’t think they’re trying to be. Yet, my issue is they are addressing the problems and the emotional and social complexities without “offending” anyone.
For all the “realism” in The Unforgivable, it strives to be apolitical. What I mean by that is the story-by is very nature-is political. Yet, Fingscheidt and her writers try to dance around the inevitable hotbed topicality of its plot, sometimes gracefully, other times clumsily. Though there is a scene between John (Vincent D’Onofrio) and his wife Liz (Viola Davis) wherein she tells her husband that if one of their Black sons were in Ruth’s place, there would be no “second chance” or hope for redemption.
It’s these moments, where the film glides against the specter of race and class, that make The Unforgivable so infuriating. The narrative is split into three between Ruth’s attempt to get her life back together, her baby sister Katherine (Aisling Franciosi) now living with an adopted family, and the two sons Keith (Tom Guiry) and Steve (Will Pullen) of the murdered sheriff who want revenge.
The last thread is the least successful one. The two sons, Keith and Steve, struggle with the loss of their father twenty years later. Their obsession and eventual plotting for revenge are tiresome. Of all the stories in The Unforgivable, theirs feel the tritest. In consolidating the miniseries into a single movie, the writers have chosen to shove a plot into an account. Yet, even here, Fingscheidt and her writers find complex truth in how the two men justify their actions. “She’s just outside, free, living her life, free to leave it all behind.”
Ruth is many things; she is not free, nor is there a moment her actions don’t haunt her. Whether it’s her parole officer Vincent (Rob Morgan), who constantly reminds her she’s now an ex-con and a cop killer, or her newfound friend Blake (Jon Bernthal), who seems nice but she’s afraid to tell the truth about herself. Or any of the other numerous external forces that she’s worried they might find out about her past or react violently when they do find out. Fingscheidt and her editors Joe Walker and Stephan Bechinger do a splendid job in weaving scenes from the past with scenes of the present in such a way that we can map out Ruth’s psyche and understand her pain and frustration.
Bullock’s performance as Ruth is some of her best work to date. There’s a look in her eyes, a sort of hopelessness that we don’t usually see in the star. But more than that, she embodies Ruth in the way she walks and talks, that remarkably there are times that we forget we are watching Sandra Bullock. She imbues Ruth with dignity but also roiling anger, and she’s not afraid to make Ruth unlikable.
Part of the problem with The Unforgivable is Feingscheidt is German. I’m not saying only Americans can make movies about America, but much like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the attempts to round out the very jagged edges of these thorny issues in favor of a level playing field, undermines the entire thing. I find it hard to believe that Ruth Slater could kill a cop by accident while fighting the bank, or the state, it’s never clear, from taking the family house, wouldn’t be greeted with some kind of parade or hero’s welcome by some organization or another.
But if they did that, they wouldn’t be able to tell the story they wanted to tell. I get that. It was just something that I found odd about the movie because, despite Ruth’s personality, her actions are hardly “unforgivable” in today’s current climate. It’s another way the film addresses the issues without actually addressing them.
It could also be that they are unable to tackle these things because of the manufactured last thirty minutes of the movie in which everything we were told is revealed to be a lie. If there is anything unforgivable in The Unforgivable, it is both the paltry use of Viola Davis and the last third of the movie. There is a moment so ludicrously melodramatic and cynically employed that I took off my headphones in disgust and tossed them on the floor.
However, Fingscheidt and her cameraman, Guillermo Navarro, never drop the ball. She and Navarro do a splendid job switching between subjective and objective points of view without ever confusing the two. Combined with the aforementioned editing, The Unforgivable is at times so compelling that it becomes galling whenever they drop the ball.
Bullock’s heartfelt and, frankly tremendous, performance feels almost wasted in a movie so unwilling to truly commit to its exploration or its desire to explore rather than thrill, which is why the climax feels such at odds. Ultimately, The Unforgivable is another movie showing us what many have begun to learn in the past few years. The “justice” system does not care about justice, and the “rehabilitative” measures put in place do little to rehabilitate.
Fingschedit is a talented director whose work with actors is to be applauded as every performance, despite the writing, is subtle and well crafted. The Unforgivable is a thumbs sideways movie in which there’s so much good in it that you could easily make a better movie with the same people. But, like many movies, it doesn’t have faith in the audience and tries to give them an exciting ending with shootouts and standoffs. So the movie’s not unforgivable, but it’s also not that great either.
Images courtesy of Netflix
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