Honestly, I don’t think Sandra Bullock‘s die hard fans are going to be bothered by the things movie critics are (rightly) picking at in her latest, “The Unforgivable.”
She dresses down to play an ex-con “cop killer” trying to start over, but trying harder to get back in touch with the baby sister who went into foster care and then was adopted after her arrest. It’s a tale with mystery, pathos, interesting twists, a harrowing scene or two and a serious toe-to-toe shout-off with her fellow Oscar winner, Viola Davis.
The story takes tried and true elements and upends them. And the onetime “America’s Sweetheart” gives us a taste of toughness behind those about-to-cry eyes. The character has a temper that flirts with “bipolar.”
This star vehicle might have been intended to be awards bait, but that was always going to be a stretch. The only hint that it’s a “vanity project” is Bullock’s basically shaving 20 years off her age to play the big sister who went to prison, and not the girl’s mother (far more plausible).
And there’s one big melodramatic twist too many — or two or three — so there you go.
It’s about the ripples that spread from a moment of violence, reverberating over the years, never leaving anyone involved “whole” ever again. Well-cast, just gritty enough, it’s not half bad, all things considered.
“Unforgivable” begins the day Ruth Slater gets out, picked up at prison by her no-nonsense parole officer (Rob Morgan, superb). He bluntly lays out her “10 commandments,” starting with “no drugs or alcohol, no guns, no” associating with felons.
“No contact with the victim’s family” is another. She’ll “always be a cop killer,” he reminds her. She should keep her head down and start her life over.
But she can’t do that. It’s not just that the job she had lined up as an itinerant carpenter/house remodeler is yanked from her. Somebody “called or visited,” she figures. Probably that somebody who we saw watch her leave prison, one of the sons (Tom Guiry) of the kindly sheriff she killed 20 years before.
There are harassing phone calls at the halfway house. This guy is determined to wreak some sort of revenge on her, and is hellbent on talking his brother (Will Pullen) into joining him.
“We gonna let this GO?”
Another twist involves Ruth’s return to the “murder house,” her former home in the country where a couple of lawyers (Davis and Vincent D’Onofrio) have moved, renovating the place as they do.
Meanwhile, the once-traumatized sister (Aisling Franciosi) is taking anxiety medication, but has become a promising college piano soloist. Her parents (Richard Thomas and Linda Edmond) never mention her life before age five. Only her sister (Emma Nelson) is curious, and Katherine has no memories to share, just the odd dream that leaves her in the dark about her past.
The story takes place in Seattle, so naturally Ruth’s fall-back job is gutting salmon. Naturally, there’s another guy on the line (Jon Bernthal, terrific) who is sweet on her, as sullen and standoffish as she is. Naturally, there’s a minefield of “parole violations” she must negotiate.
And of course there’s rough stuff with her fellow halfway housemates. But the story doesn’t tumble into those tropes. It’s about Ruth’s journey, her guilt, her secrets and her burden.
German director Nora Fingscheidt (“System Crasher”) keeps “Unforgivable” rooted in reality, no matter how many elements get added to the mix. Well, more or less.
All sorts of issues and themes are touched on or brought to mind by this story — the rough justice cops reserve for crimes against their own, the terror of adoptive parents being faced with a blood relation/bad influence from their child’s history, the racial inequities of and cruelty of “the system,” which Davis and D’Onofio’s character is quick to remind us about.
Bullock’s performance, giving us theatrical flashes of rage, isn’t bad and represents a nice reach for her. She’s still got a gift for making a connection with the audience and jerking the tears. Davis and D’Onofrio, Morgan and Thomas have impressive showcase acting moments.
But whatever the three credited screenwriters were able to conjure up, the story makes more sense on several levels if Ruth is a mother and not a big sister. It’s not just the age thing. The novelty of making them siblings and hiding that for much of the first act requires more explaining than it should. The tie that binds is a much easier sell for a mother and child.
And the whole sheriff sons’ revenge subplot is believable but forced and melodramatic, a complication the story doesn’t need to find its emotional center. This would have worked as a drama without shoving thriller elements in as an afterthought.
Yet in my view, the good outweighs the eye-rolling here. For a genre picture, “Unforgiveable” is surprisingly offbeat. It settles into dramatic rhythms, and then shocks you with violence. It leans into some tropes while flipping others.
Bullock gives us an old-fashioned star turn at the center of an equally-celebrated supporting cast and gives a young woman director from her mother’s homeland a big break. Call “Unforgivable” a mixed bag, but an intensely watchable one.
Rating: R, violence and profanity
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Vincent D’Onofrio, Viola Davis, Aisling Franciosi, Rob Morgan, Richard Thomas, Linda Edmond, Will Pullen and Jon Bernthal
Credits: Directed by Nora Fingscheidt, scripted by Peter Craig, Hillary Seitz and Courtenay Miles. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:51