REVIEW: ‘The Unforgivable’ is a gritty film about trauma at a young age and being haunted by the past

Grace Hall, Contributing Writer

The scene opens on a middle-aged woman named Ruth Slater (Sandra Bullock), being released from jail. It’s clear she’s seen some things she hasn’t wanted to and her face looks weathered and hard. She clearly has built a wall between herself and her emotions, but she’s strong and looking for a job. It comes out later on that there’s a reason that she is the way she is. Her father committed suicide, leaving Slater (aged in her late teens) and her small sister to fend for themselves. When the sheriff came to evict them, she killed him, or so the record states. After that, her sister was placed with a family and sent into the system. The house was passed on, but not everyone has forgotten about what has happened.

“The Unforgivable” (2021) on Netflix. (Nora Fingscheidt/Red Production Company)

The children of the sheriff live with their trauma everyday. Not only is Slater labeled a cop-killer, but the people she harmed when she killed him label her the murderer of their father. Behind her cold exterior, it’s difficult to know if Slater is simply attempting to live a normal life or living as though it never happened, and to the sheriff’s children, it seems to be the latter. 

It’s evident that Slater will never move on from her past. As she says, “Everyone out here is exactly how they are in the yard.” Life is cruel, and she’s learned this well, but this doesn’t mean that she will always be able to protect herself. Slater will never know safety like those who have a support system out in the world may. Reliving her past by meeting her sister may seem like the only situation to Slater, but this is complicated for everyone involved. Wading through muddy feelings to get to the heart of the matter is tricky, and it almost seems selfish for Slater to attempt to contact her sister, when she has a new life, a new family and a bright future. She knows it will not be easy for her past to leave her alone. 

This movie really highlights the reality of what life after being in the system is like. It’s heartbreaking to know that if Slater had a different beginning to her life, she could have been led down a very different path. The fight instinct is very strong and in situations where someone feels like they have been threatened, their reaction can be violent and almost animalistic. Protecting a sister, who you have a motherly instinct towards, can lend itself towards this.

One of the unique things about this movie is how it portrays forgiveness. We know that it’s not a one and done thing to do, but it’s also scary how far people will carry their grudges. In some cases, anger from years ago still festers knowing that revenge has not been paid, at least through their eyes. In a different world, where the dead sheriff’s sons would not seek revenge and the world did not label her as a cop killer, Slater may have been able to live a meaningful life, but she would still carry the trauma of what happened to her and what she has done.

The run time of this movie was perfectlong enough to truly spend time on Slater’s emotions and the unraveling of the plotline, but always maintaining the audience’s attention. At an hour and fifty-two minutes, it may seem long for the plot, but this is required to really delve into the issues that Slater faces, as well as spending time on side characters. The film is gritty, and the emotions are complicated. It takes time for Slater to even confront these fully, and for the audience to come to terms with them as well. The film’s length reflects this fact, allowing enough time for viewers to grasp the story.

To be quite honest, this movie made me cry. It’s a great representation of motherly love, of missing the one person that is family and being punished for a past you cannot escape. The themes of forgiveness, unconditional, motherly love and the strength of a person are gritty and personal, leaving space for personal reflection on the part of the audience. 

In a world where children are forced to grow up too fast, life doesn’t just go on. The past is carried heavily, and though regrets may be held as well, this doesn’t mean others will forgive you. Everyone is a child in one way or another, yearning for love and attempting to find their way in life. The web of pain spreads from one individual to another, and as the saying goes, hurt people hurt people. “The Unforgivable” really bends down to a child’s level, looks them in the eye, and begs the question, “When does it stop?”