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Review: Sandra Bullock, great supporting cast bolster uneven ‘The Unforgivable’

A woman looks at her reflection in a mirror.
Sandra Bullock plays Ruth Slater, a woman released from prison after 20 years, in the drama “The Unforgivable.”
(Kimberley French / Netflix)

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We live in a country that constantly challenges itself on the concepts of forgiveness, innocence and guilt: the obsession with being “canceled” in the pop culture sphere; the question of who gets convicted for certain crimes and who doesn’t, and who gets killed by police and who doesn’t; and what kinds of punishments are appropriate for which offenses. All of that is weighty, ponderous stuff, and Sandra Bullock’s latest, “The Unforgivable,” puts a mid-’90s thriller veneer on it.

“The Unforgivable” follows 40-something Ruth Slater (Bullock), a woman who served 20 years for murdering a local police sheriff as he attempted to let bank representatives foreclose upon her family home and evict her and her younger sister Katherine. The crime still haunts Ruth, with “The Unforgivable” placing us (too often) inside her stifling memories: the explosive loudness of the gun, the pool of blood spreading from the body of Sheriff Mac Whelan (W. Earl Brown). But now that she’s out, Ruth forces herself to move on. She plans to pursue carpentry, her career before prison, and find her sister, to whom she’s written letters for two decades without any response.

The film then splits into a few different lanes, tracking the movements of both Ruth and those close to her. To find Katherine, Ruth enlists the help of a compassionate attorney (Vincent D’Onofrio), whose wife (Viola Davis) argues that Ruth isn’t exactly a victim — she chose to kill a cop. At work, Ruth grows close to a co-worker (Jon Bernthal), but she’s afraid to tell him who she really is. In her life as a felon, she butts heads with her demanding parole officer (Rob Morgan).

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Bullock plays Ruth as a woman whose veneer of stillness and silence is slowly chipping away, and whose softness underneath is in danger from an unsympathetic world — in particular from the sons of the police officer she killed (Tom Guiry and Will Pullen).

Finally, “The Unforgivable” also spends time with now-adult Katherine (Aisling Franciosi) and her family, including parents (Richard Thomas and Linda Emond) who hid the truth about Ruth and a younger sister, Emily (Emma Nelson), who becomes increasingly curious about the adopted Katherine’s origins.

Critic’s Notebook: The Oscar-winning actress’ stellar turn in Alfonso Cuarón’s space epic displays a command and depth light years beyond previous roles.

“The Unforgivable” is an adaptation of the 2009 British miniseries “Unforgiven,” and has been in development for years — first with filmmaker Christopher McQuarrie and star Angelina Jolie before landing with Bullock and director Nora Fingscheidt for Netflix. Writers Peter Craig, Hillary Seitz and Courtenay Miles make changes from the original but the general plot is much the same. Despite the film’s release more than a decade after its source material, the central questions about grace versus intolerance remain relevant. Abuse and neglect, economic desperation and housing instability lead to the fear and insecurity that can spark criminal behavior, and they come to life on Bullock’s face as she careens between desperation and distrust and stoicism and sadness. After the rules of law and order are followed, and after someone serves their time, what paths forward are provided for their success? What does reintegration look like? Or absolution?

None of that is straightforward stuff, and “The Unforgivable” sometimes struggles with considering these questions and their sprawling, layered answers. The plot is inevitable, the editing is imbalanced and the film sidesteps questions of race and class that would have complicated this narrative and brought it closer to reality. Stephan Bechinger and Joe Walker’s overzealous editing relies too much on soft-focus flashbacks to fill in storytelling gaps, while cinematographer Guillermo Navarro’s mirrored shot compositions steer viewers too strongly toward predictable plot beats.

These choices work overtime to convince viewers of the film’s Important Movie messaging when all “The Unforgivable” needed was what it already has: a strong ensemble of actors who approach the material organically and intuitively. Bullock’s against-type casting counterbalances a story that sometimes slips and slides into narrative coincidence. Davis, D’Onofrio, Bernthal, Morgan, Thomas and Emond form a murderer’s row of fellow A-listers and character actors who, with nuance and unfussiness, help elevate the film’s inconsistent script. Through their efforts, “The Unforgivable” transcends its own self-importance and becomes an experience that is often rattling, challenging and haunting.

But the different lanes are sometimes too much for “The Unforgivable” to handle, with its most obvious shortcoming being the lack of development for Katherine and the Whelan brothers. Its most recurring frustration is how often well-flowing scenes get interrupted by jolts back to the past. But Bullock is always there to guide viewers forward, and “The Unforgivable” relies on her likable steadfastness to make its lingering points about the cost of freedom, the burden of infamy and the bravery of mercy.

'The Unforgivable'

Rated: R, for language and violence

Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes

Playing: Nov. 24 in limited release; Dec. 10 on Netflix


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