Every once in a while, you need a good, juicy, erotic thriller. In the '90s, they were plentiful, but now they're rare (forget the dopey "50 Shades" movies), which makes savoring the outlandishly entertaining "Unforgettable" worthwhile. It's a female-driven melodrama — a "women's picture" as they used to call them in the Hollywood of the 1940s — that deals frankly with the issues of domestic violence, trauma and motherhood, all wrapped up in a salacious and often deliciously campy package.
Veteran producer Denise Di Novi makes "Unforgettable" her directorial debut, working with a script by Christina Hodson. Di Novi crafts a well-executed thriller that somehow balances these very sobering problems with the more over-the-top elements, thanks in large part to her lead actresses. Rosario Dawson plays the down-to-earth Julia, the film's voice of reason. She's a domestic violence survivor who moves to Southern California from San Francisco to be with her new fiance, David (Geoff Stults).
On the other side of the spectrum is an amazing Katherine Heigl, making a triumphant comeback as David's terrifyingly Stepford-esque ex-wife, Tessa. Heigl is all power pumps and stick-straight hair as the Type-A Tessa, wound so tightly you know some screw is about to come loose — if it hasn't already. Her arch performance as this rattlesnake of a woman, coiled and ready to spring for attack, is revelatory. She's the villain Heigl was always supposed to play.
Tessa and David have to navigate shared custody of their daughter, Lily (Isabella Kai Rice), which puts Tessa front and center in Julia and David's dreamy new relationship. All it takes is one hair tangle, a glimpse at the happy new blended family and a text about a wedding dress to send Tessa violently spiraling. She turns into an Internet-stalking, catfishing burglar, dredging up Julia's messy past to come back and haunt her.
"Unforgettable" is tawdry, sometimes cheesy and definitely soapy. There are some insane choices made in the production design, which is perfect for a movie like this. It'd be all too easy to write it off as "guilty-pleasure" material, a higher-budget Lifetime movie. But that would denigrate female-driven entertainment that deals with the melodramas of the mind, body and soul from a woman's perspective. Though this movie has its outrageous moments, Di Novi puts the female emotional journey up front and treats things respectfully.
But every erotic thriller needs some crazy, and thank goodness for Heigl's full commitment to her character's insanity. That campiness is needed in a picture like this, allowing the audience relief from the tension while we giggle at her enthusiastic hair brushing or wild-eyed mania. In a final scene, she's swathed gloriously in a mint caftan, her hair flowing. She calls to mind that other unforgettably controlling mother, Margaret White, from Brian De Palma's 1976 film, "Carrie," played by Piper Laurie, who earned an Oscar nomination for that role. Heigl channels Laurie's performance with her lilting tones and soft savagery. It's a uniquely feminine kind of villainy, and Di Novi and Heigl understand it implicitly in order to execute it perfectly.
Rating: R for sexual content, violence, some language, and brief partial nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: In general release