Netflix’s The Unforgivable seems designed to tell a story of redemption and repentance. But far from being a progressive comment on criminal justice and second chances, the film gives most of its attention to characters who are in fact punitive, devoid of empathy.
Directed by Nora Fingscheidt and starring Sandra Bullock, the drama is presented from the perspective of multiple characters impacted by a single crime. An adaptation of the critically lauded 2009 British series Unforgiven written by Sally Wainwright, the American rendition sees Bullock in the lead role of Ruth Slater, a woman released from prison after serving 20 years for the murder of a sheriff. Now in a halfway house and working two blue-collar jobs, Ruth is on a mission to find her younger sister, Katie (Aisling Franciosi), who lives in a foster home with protective parents (Richard Thomas and Linda Emond) and a new sister (Emma Nelson).
Also central to the film is the couple that now lives in the “murder house” where Ruth committed the act. John and Liz Ingram (Vincent D’Onofrio and Viola Davis) are at odds with one another when it comes to Ruth, with John playing the sympathetic lawyer and Liz being overtly icy and skeptical towards Ruth’s intentions considering her past. Liz has condemned Ruth to being solely a criminal, nothing more than an example of moral decay. In one scene, when Ruth visits Liz’s property (her previous home), Liz says, “You were sent to prison! You have to take responsibility for that. John looks at you and he sees someone who deserves a second chance. I don’t see that.”
Viola Davis as Liz Ingram.
Credit: Kimberley French / Netflix
In Liz’s camp are the sheriff’s sons, Steve and Keith Whelan (Will Pullen and Tom Guiry), who expressly believe that Ruth has not paid her dues for the murder of their father. As one brother says to the other, “She walks around free. She’s got a job and a guy. She lives like it never happened.” These words may be impactful had there been no sentence, no form of justice. But even after 20 years in prison, punishment is still demanded. The Whelans all but say Ruth isn’t deserving of living a real life, with dignity, loved ones, and opportunities.
Later, Liz begins to see Ruth as more than her worst act, but this is just a brief moment in a greater story, where judgement and punishment remain the focal point for each character’s interactions with Ruth. In this manner, the film presents a cruel life after incarceration, with the majority of characters disbelieving in both accountability and redemption. With both comes the path to transformation, but The Unforgivable doesn’t dig into this enough. The idea that someone like Ruth can create new meaning in her life following her sentence is not one that the supporting characters, and even the writing in the film, seem to favour.
There are few characters that believe in second chances — if at all — and those who tentatively do are eclipsed by vengeful and retaliatory figures.
Told with muted colors and long silences, the story does come to a peaceful and somewhat heart-tugging close (albeit just 30 seconds of conclusion), but there was so much space to tell a more complex story. Offering no hope for post-prison rehabilitation, the story is bleak. Cycles of trauma and generational sadness are represented, but not dismantled. There are few characters that believe in second chances — if at all — and those who tentatively do are eclipsed by vengeful and retaliatory figures. As her parole officer Vince Cross (a very effective Rob Morgan) tells Ruth at one point, “You’re a cop killer everywhere.” In one line, viewers are privy to the world Ruth has entered upon her release, likely to never be seen as someone who can belong to society again.
Ruth (Sandra Bullock) and her parole officer Vince Cross (Rob Morgan).
Credit: Kimberley French / Netflix
The Unforgivable does indicate the need for urgent and sweeping reform of the justice system, by portraying facets of Ruth’s post-incarceration life, such as her living conditions and the disdain she cannot avoid. This is, however, just shown as it is, without providing even a glimmer of what it should be. Here was a chance to speak to the values and potential of restoration and empathy, but The Unforgivable falls short of convincing viewers that either is possible.