Ruth Slater (Sandra Bullock) has been in prison for two decades when “The Unforgivable” opens. That’s a long time to idle while the world moves forward. But 10 years — the length of time this film was in development — is pretty extensive, too. Indeed, the fact that the movie’s history is almost as convoluted as Ruth’s makes it all the more impressive that director Nora Fingscheidt (“System Crasher”) and her team have crafted an affecting, if flawed, redemption drama.
“Unforgiven” was an acclaimed, three-part British miniseries that had the space and time to unwind these characters and their complex history. And once you know this remake was at one point planned with Angelina Jolie in the lead and Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects,” “Jack Reacher”) as writer and director, it’s easy to get lost imagining another route entirely.
But this is a story about moving forward, about learning to reassess judgments and misjudgments, and defining one’s self from within when the world has already dismissed any attempts at redefinition. And a formidable Bullock makes this character her own, even as Ruth struggles to figure out where she fits.
When her compassionate parole officer (Rob Morgan, “Mudbound”) drops her at a decrepit halfway house in Seattle, it’s clear that Ruth is unmoored. Her roommates are thieves and drug addicts, and the only job she can get is on an assembly line skinning fish. She has just one living relative, her younger sister Katie (Aisling Franciosi, “The Fall”). Ruth is desperate to reconnect, but it soon becomes clear that her sole aim will also be her biggest challenge.
Twenty years ago, after Ruth and Katie’s parents died, the girls were evicted from their family farmhouse. From what we’re able to see in flashbacks, a desperate Ruth shot the sheriff who came to take them away. She’s served her time but will forever be reviled as a cop killer. Now Katie, who remembers the past only in unsettling bursts, has a new life with the Malcolms, a pair of loving adoptive parents (Richard Thomas, Linda Edmond) and an adoring little sister (Emma Nelson, “Where’d You Go Bernadette”).
Ruth believes she’s paid the price for her crime, but she’s having a hard time finding anyone who agrees. The Malcolms are terrified of her disrupting their settled home. The sheriff’s bitter sons (Tom Guiry and Will Pullen) want to destroy what’s left of Ruth’s life in vengeance for the way she ruined theirs. There’s also Blake (Jon Bernthal), who stands on the assembly line with her and seems like a promising romantic prospect — until she confesses her story. And John Ingram (Vincent D’Onofrio), a lawyer who’s willing to help her, until his wife Liz (Viola Davis) points out that their own black sons would never get a second chance if they’d killed an officer like Ruth did.
This is a lot to juggle, especially in a movie rather than a miniseries. And there are times when the screenplay, by Peter Craig, Hillary Seitz, and Courtenay Miles, gets bogged down by so much heavy responsibility. Because Fingscheidt has gathered such a strong cast, and taken such pains to delineate between each world, we feel as though every disparate thread deserves its own time. Instead, most of the characters get short shrift, and powerful actors who might normally serve as anchors — Morgan, Davis, and Bernthal in particular — are reduced to memorable cameos.
But this is Bullock’s show, for better and worse (she’s also a producer). As for the latter, there’s the confusing and distracting practical matter of math: Bullock is 57, Franciosi is 28; Ruth seems to be around 40, and Katie around 20. Because their history is unfolded slowly in flashbacks (played by Bullock as Ruth’s younger self, and Neli Kastrinos as Katie’s), we spend a lot of time trying to figure out how Ruth and Katie could be connected.
Still, a tightly-drawn Bullock is fully in tune with Ruth’s pain, making her extreme introversion an evident side effect of trauma rather than personality. Because Ruth keeps so much inside, Fingscheidt uses every element to create a sensory connection between this difficult character and the audience. The score, from Hans Zimmer and David Fleming, takes us part of the way there.
But Fingscheidt’s underlying focus is on the cultural strata that divide the characters. Guillermo Navarro’s intimate cinematography, which shifts with the socioeconomic settings, matches each notably divergent environment as designed by Kim Jennings and Natalie Van Hest. Jennings and Van Hest have eyes for minute detail, and deftly pull us from Ruth’s viscerally repellent halfway house to the Ingrams’ expensively enviable farmhouse to the Malcolms’ softer suburban haven.
All of this fine work does bring us back to the fact that there’s too much here, and too little time in which to explore it all. As it happens, the original “Unforgiven” is streaming on Britbox, while “The Unforgivable,” which is currently in theaters, will be on Netflix December 10. It’s not exactly uplifting, but a pairing of the series and the film might compel anyone looking for something more intense than traditional holiday fare.
“The Unforgivable” opens in US theaters Nov. 24 and on Netflix Dec. 10.