As Ruth Slater, a woman who’s just been released from prison after 20 years, Sandra Bullock makes a concerted effort to void her face of all expression. The character’s look is appropriately unglamorous—off-the-rack wardrobe, no makeup, hair generally pulled back in a tight bun that suggests severity—but Bullock seems to fear that showing any hint of emotion would amount to a betrayal of Ruth’s inner pain. She lashes out in anger when provoked but otherwise might as well be The Woman With No Name, squinting the world down with a cheroot poking from one corner of her mouth. It’s a superficial, one-dimensional conception of someone who’s been hardened by suffering and sorrow, setting the tone for a risibly unbelievable melodrama.
As it happens, The Unforgivable is a remake of Unforgiven—not Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winner, as Bullock seems to mistakenly believe, but a 2009 British miniseries with the same title (which Netflix has understandably opted to tweak slightly). In theory, the two should be roughly equivalent: Unforgiven consisted of three 45-minute episodes, running in total only about 20 minutes longer than this movie’s two hours. Most of the plot elements and characters have been duplicated, too, though the action’s been transplanted from Yorkshire to the Seattle area. Something went seriously awry in the process, given how acclaimed the miniseries was. At the same time, however, the film’s least believable aspects seem to come straight from the source.
Those don’t emerge for a while (episode three was quite the bombshell), and The Unforgivable flatlines long before then. Part of the problem may be the nature of Ruth’s crime: 20 years earlier, she’d shot and killed a county sheriff who’d shown up at her house to serve eviction papers. That’s what’s unforgivable, in this context—not just murder, but specifically the murder of a law enforcement officer, which here provokes universal disgust and revulsion at a level usually reserved for child molestation. Ruth’s probation officer (Rob Morgan) more or less counsels her to accept being a permanent societal outcast, which is more implausible now than it might have been even two years ago.
Ruth robotically resumes her life on the outside, taking a job gutting fish (she’s a carpenter by trade, but the gig she’d lined up suddenly vanishes when the boss learns that she’s a cop killer) and sleeping in a dormitory-style facility for former inmates. But she devotes nearly every conscious, non-working moment to tracking down her younger sister, Katie (The Nightingale’s Aisling Franciosa), who’s been adopted by another family. This aspect of the story had already required some finessing—there needed to be a reason why a five-year-old girl, at the time of the incident, had no family apart from Ruth—and casting Bullock necessarily created a massive three-decade age gap between the siblings. (Suranne Jones, who played the original Ruth, was 31.) Not impossible, of course, but rather unusual; simply making Ruth Katie’s mother instead would have been less jarring.
In any case, Katie, now a college student, has only a few jagged memories of her early childhood and considers her adoptive parents and sister to be her true family. She also hasn’t been told what her birth mother did, nor given any of the zillion letters that Ruth wrote her from prison. So there’s potential conflict a-plenty there, set in motion when Ruth visits her old house and meets its current owners, one of whom (Vincent D’Onofrio) conveniently happens to be a high-powered attorney. After the requisite bout of disgust and revulsion, he agrees to help her try to make contact. Meanwhile, the adult sons (Thomas Guiry and Will Pullen) of the murdered sheriff, livid that Ruth has been freed, plot their revenge, which they decide will be an eye for an eye: They’ll kill somebody that Ruth loves. Guess who?
There’s a big revelation buried deep underneath all of this intrigue, which director Nora Fingscheidt (System Crasher, likewise on Netflix) and the film’s three credited screenwriters none-too-subtly signal by providing only fleeting, chaotic images of the murder until very near the end. What actually happened—as conceived by Sally Wainwright, who wrote the miniseries—doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but perhaps the tale was originally told with such emotional richness and nervewracking tension that nobody much cared.
Here, everything’s so flatly emphatic that each story beat feels mechanistic. Neither Ruth nor anybody else (with the minor, welcome exception of a potential love interest played by Jon Bernthal) feels like a credible human being driven by recognizable impulses; even a titan like Viola Davis, as the attorney’s considerably less empathetic wife, can’t transcend her character’s straitjacketed narrative function. The whole thing comes across as a movie star’s anti-vanity project, just an opportunity for Bullock to demonstrate her ostensible range. Okay, she can be hard and stoic and affectless. Noted.