Director: Nora Fingscheidt
Writers: Peter Craig, Hillary Seitz, Courtenay Miles
Stars: Sandra Bullock, Jon Bernthal, Rob Morgan, Vincent D’Onofrio, Viola Davis
Something that’s been exciting about the career of Sandra Bullock is that with each new film she makes, you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get. Since her major breakthrough in 1994’s Speed, she has excelled in dramas, comedies, and thrillers, something few actors have been able to do successfully decade after decade. And after she won the Academy Award for The Blind Side, Bullock has refused to play it safe, always challenging herself, particularly in Alfonso Cuaron’s sublime Gravity, the little-seen and underrated Our Brand is Crisis, and the 2018 Netflix horror sensation Bird Box.
In her newest film The Unforgivable, Bullock has challenged herself yet again, offering a raw and uncompromising performance that is unlike anything she’s done before. As ex-convict Ruth Slater, a woman who spent twenty years in prison for the killing of a police officer, the actress explores the anguish of someone who the world has given up on but who has every intention of doing something meaningful with her life and fighting like hell to see the one person she loves—her younger sister Katie, who was put into foster care soon after Ruth’s arrest.
As Ruth tries to build back her life with help from her parole officer Vincent (Rob Morgan) and track down her sister with assistance from her a lawyer John (Vincent D’Onofrio), the enraged sons of the man she killed begin stalking her on the streets and at her work. And John’s wife Liz (Viola Davis), who lives in the house Ruth once called her own, wants her husband to have nothing to do with her case. As the film reaches its third act, we learn a major surprise about the shooting of that cop twenty years ago, and there’s no telling if Ruth will ever get the chance to hold her sister in her arms again.
The Unforgivable works best as a dramatic showcase for its star, Sandra Bullock, who’s never played a character this unlikable, angry, and beaten down. She’s not afraid to show the worst sides of Ruth, the violent tendencies she has after having been in prison for so long, the irritated vibes she gives off to almost everyone around her. Throughout the narrative, she slams people’s faces into walls if she thinks she’s been wronged, and she can’t silence her profane mouth in moments when she’s supposed to present a warm, calm demeanor, like the scene where Ruth meets with Katie’s foster parents and blows up in their faces when she suspects they withheld the letters she wrote to her sister from prison.
Directed by Nora Fingscheidt and with a screenplay by Peter Craig, Hillary Seitz, and Courtenay Miles, the film works as well as it does due to Bullock’s impressive performance, along with the terrific turns from its supporting cast, especially Jon Bernthal as her work friend and potential love interest Blake, Will Pullen as one of the two murdered cop’s distraught sons, and the divine Viola Davis, who shares the film’s best scene with Bullock on a front lawn where Liz and Ruth go toe-to-toe on their opposing desires and beliefs, their intense screaming match stopping only when Ruth makes a surprising revelation about Katie.
The story works beautifully when it quietly explores Ruth’s life after prison, showing her at work, and sharing updates with her parole officer, and finding comfort in a man who might see beyond her tortured past. Where the script lets the actors down occasionally is any time the plot veers into familiar genre conventions, particularly with a kidnapping toward the end that feels rushed and forced. There’s also too much emphasis on the day the police officer was shot, director Fingscheidt flashing back on brief moments from the traumatic event over and over to the point of absurdity. Sure, it’s better to show us tiny glimpses of the day rather than one long flashback scene toward the end, but at times the film doesn’t have a chance to breathe because the flashbacks keep tugging us backward when most of the time we want the narrative to keep pushing us forward.
But despite some confusing editing and a couple heavy-handed plot developments getting in the way, The Unforgivable is an engaging, worthwhile drama, one I can’t deny made me cry at two different parts, and most of that is due to Sandra Bullock’s uncanny ability to fully inhabit this damaged character from the inside out, making you root for Ruth even when she’s at her lowest point. How many actresses of her stature would have even bothered with subject matter and a character like this at a point in her career when she could have just signed on to a middle-of-the-road comedy and called it a day?
For the longest time she was an actress few ever took seriously, many wanting her to stick with what she did best—comedies like While You Were Sleeping and Miss Congeniality—and do away with somber dramas like In Love and War and 28 Days. It took her awhile to find her voice as a dramatic actress, but she’s currently performing at the highest level of her skills and talent, and in The Unforgivable she delivers a sensational Oscar-worthy performance, disappearing into a role that’s nothing like Leigh Anne Touhy in The Blind Side or Ryan Stone in Gravity or Malorie in Bird Box. This story of redemption, pain and regret could have been a maudlin slog with a lesser actress inhabiting Ruth Slater, but in the hands of Bullock, it’s simply a must-see.