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Netflix’s The Unforgivable asks Sandra Bullock to go way too hard

There’s nothing to grab on to in this potentially interesting character study

Sandra Bullock as Ruth Slater Photo: Kimberley French/Netflix

In a myriad of ways, Netflix’s The Unforgivable, the slow-moving redemption film from director Nora Fingscheidt, resembles Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, minus the noir elements. The film’s protagonist revisits a mistake — an innocent person’s death through flashbacks to the devastating event — in this case, a cop who died at the hands of Ruth Slater (Sandra Bullock). When the memories arrive in Slater’s mind, they stab like shards of glass, each time revealing more details surrounding the tragedy and inflicting more pain on the rememberer. Unlike Destroyer, unfortunately, The Unforgivable lacks anything resembling narrative tension.

The film operates on three paths: After serving 20 years in prison, Slater is released on good behavior to her parole officer Vincent (Rob Morgan). He sets her up in a flophouse in Seattle’s Chinatown, with a job in a fish-packing place. Despite the conditions of her parole, Slater goes in search of her now-adult kid sister Katherine (Aisling Franciosi), who lives with a set of well-to-do foster parents and only brief recollections of her past life. Unbeknownst to Slater, the sons of the cop she killed — Steve (Will Pullen) and Keith (Tom Guiry) — have heard about her recent release, and they’re out for revenge.

Despite a deep ensemble led by a transformative Bullock, Unforgivable moves at a turgid pace, lacking the urgency and pathos required in a redemption narrative with any hopes that the audience will pull for its damaged protagonist. Similar to Kidman in Destroyer, Bullock’s appearance oscillates from strained and ragged in present-day scenes, to bright, in-full-make-up in sequences set in the past. Bullock portrays Slater as terse, strained at the jaw, and always at the edge of eruption. Slater tries to keep a low profile. She’s often guarded — she’s served her time, but her reputation as a cop-killer will always follow her around. It’s why when a coworker at the fish-packing plant, the kind, generous Blake (Jon Bernthal, still sporting his King Richard mustache) falls for her, she initially seems hesitant to pursue the first tiny shred of kindness given to her. Slater doesn’t believe she deserves redemption.

Instead, her desire to see her sister again sustains the glacial first half. The film pretty closely follows the beats of Sally Wainwright’s three-part British miniseries Unforgiven, on which it’s based: Slater eventually ventures back to the farmhouse where she purportedly shot the cop, only to find it now occupied by lawyer John Ingram (Vincent D’Onofrio), his wife Liz (Viola Davis), and their two sons.

Viola Davis in a still from “The Unforgivable” Photo: Netflix

Where Unforgiven has an all-white cast, Netflix’s version gives Fingscheidt the chance to interrogate Slater’s privilege through Liz’s frank grilling. Slater complains that no one will let her see her sister, but she’s a white woman, released after killing a cop, when someone Black would’ve been killed before making it to jail. Adding insult to injury, Liz’s husband John decides, pro-bono, to help reunite Slater with her sister, in another form of privilege. (Would John have done the same if Slater was a Black cop-killer?)

Those brief spurts of self-awareness, unfortunately, are the only bits of sizzle in this lukewarm plot. Both D’Onofrio and Davis are relegated to side characters, along with the film’s seemingly central revenge plot. Steve and Keith stalk Slater outside of her work, but their danger isn’t felt.

Nor is Keith’s descent into rage. While he begins the film as a nice let-bygones-be-bygones sorta fella, he’s soon consumed by hatred for Slater. The inciting infraction that causes Keith to turn isn’t altogether believable — it’s innocuous, in fact, a failing of the script. And Guiry’s overwrought performance, an assemblage of facial tics and jitters, doesn’t give the film any additional weight. Keith, Slater, and Katherine are all wracked by trauma in their own ways, but it all bobs along at the surface, adding little in sustenance to the film’s tepid drama.

Sandra Bullock’s character being arrested in a still from “The Unforgivable” Photo: Kiimberley French/Netflix

But The Unforgivable’s central shortcoming is how hard it sells Slater as unforgivable. In a sense, Bullock’s star persona should mitigate the problem. (Can Bullock really be the villain?) For her part, the beguiling actress gives a spirited turn: The push and pull between her repressed rage, an anger strewn across her face, and a few real outbursts — one occurring when she meets her sister’s foster parents — can certainly rein in a waning attention span.

But in a role where the actress is stripped of all her charming qualities, reduced to a privileged murderer, even her previous relationship with the audience can’t fill those gaps. So viewers are stuck with a revenge plot without vigor, and a protagonist so unlikable, it’s difficult to root for her, making the film’s nearly two-hour runtime an exercise in endurance. A late-movie turning point, with a twist meant to recast Slater as a sacrificial lamb instead of a villain, comes as too little and too late.

Beyond the narrative fat (The Unforgivable could easily be half an hour shorter) and talented actors like Davis sidelined in thankless roles, the film squanders other opportunities to shine. Guillermo Navarro’s photography sometimes relies on ghastly orange tones. The soundscape — complete with a mix of sirens and high-pitched ringing, which accompanies every flashback — is too on-the-nose to be acute. Fingscheidt’s The Unforgivable has the ingredients to be an enthralling redemption story. But it’s indefensible how much it wastes such talents.

The Unforgivable debuts on Netflix Dec. 10.