When you see the stellar cast list and read the plot synopsis for The Unforgivable, it doesn't seem like the movie could possibly go wrong - or at least not as wrong as it does. The film is ponderous and manipulative. Few combinations are worse than that. Several top-tier actors give their all, but the screenplay lets them down at every turn, leading to melodramatics that may test your patience. They certainly tested mine.
Ruth Slater (Sandra Bullock) has just been released from prison after a twenty-year stint for killing her local sheriff. The specifics of what happened are initially withheld from us - always a sign that a movie is going to throw in some dumb "surprise" twist in the third act. It's nevertheless clear that she and her five-year-old sister Katherine were in danger of being thrown out of their home at the time. No-nonsense parole officer Vincent (Rob Morgan) strongly advises her not to make contact with the now-grown Katherine (Aisling Franciosi), who lives with her adoptive parents (Ann Dowd and Richard Thomas) and has no memory of Ruth.
Of course, she doesn't listen. In one of those only-in-the-movies coincidences, Ruth goes back to the house, only to find that the guy who now owns it, John Ingram (Vincent D'Onofrio), is a lawyer. After hearing part of her story, he agrees to help, against the protestations of his wife Liz (Viola Davis).
That would be enough story to fill most films, but The Unforgivable decides to keep adding more characters. Of course, there's a potential love interest for Ruth. He's Blake (Jon Bernthal), a seemingly nice guy she meets after getting a job at a fish market. There's also Keith and Steve Whelan (Tom Guiry and Will Pullen), the adult sons of the sheriff Ruth killed. Upon learning she's out of jail, they decide to exact revenge, although they can't agree on what form that should take. Apparently, the film thinks it needs villains to create dramatic tension.
With this many characters and subplots to juggle, any power the story might have gets diluted. Not much comes out of the Ruth/Blake romance, because who has time for that among everything else? The Whelan boys, meanwhile, are thoroughly underdeveloped. You could make a whole separate film out of their attempts to determine how far is too far in getting even with Ruth, or building on their disagreements about what's feasible. Instead, they're tossed in as one-dimensional creeps, here in a misguided effort to have some kind of threat for Ruth, as if her personal dilemma wasn't compelling enough.
The Unforgivable doesn't make a lot of sense, either. Why wouldn't a five-year-old remember an older sibling? Even if you buy into that shaky premise, it's never made clear why Katherine's adoptive parents work so hard to keep her from finding out about Ruth, given that she's 25 now and certainly mature enough to process such information. They treat her like a child, which has the effect of making them semi-unlikeable. Worst of all is the finale, which involves an error one of the Whelan boys makes – one that suggests he's either never studied basic math or has no clue how many years ago his father was killed.
All the actors are good, and Bullock admirably has no hesitation about making Ruth someone we occasionally dislike. The Unforgivable removes all shading from its over-stuffed story, though, presenting every single plot development in the most obvious, heavy-handed manner possible. The movie desperately wants you to be moved. That desperation ensures you aren't.
out of four
The Unforgivable is rated R for language and violence. The running time is 1 hour and 52 minutes.