(2021) Drama (Netflix) Sandra Bullock, Viola Davis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jon Benthal, Richard Thomas, Linda Emond, Aisling Franciosi, Emma Nelson, Will Pullen, Thomas Guiry, Jessica McLeod, Rob Morgan, Andrew Francis, W. Earl Brown, Neli Kastrinos, Orlando Lucas, Jude Wilson, Paul Moniz de Sa, Craig March, Alistair Abell, Donavon Stinson, Patti Kim, Jessica Charbonneau. Directed by Nora Fingscheidt
For most of us, our indiscretions are generally of a minor nature, and we move on from them with a minimum of fuss. However, there are certain actions that we might take that cannot be so easily forgiven and certainly not forgotten.
Ruth Slater (Bullock) has just emerged from prison after twenty years, with time off for good behavior. Her crime? She killed a cop (Brown) who was there to evict her and her five-year-old sister Katie (Kastrinos) from their farmhouse in rural Washington state. Ruth hopes to get back to a relatively normal life, but her unsmiling parole officer (Morgan) disabuses her of that notion immediately. “You’re a cop killer wherever you go,” he informs her and soon he turns out to be right.
But that doesn’t deter Ruth from going on a quest to find her lost little sister, now grown to adulthood and going by the name Katherine Malcolm (Franciosi). She’s a talented pianist, and her well-to-do adoptive parents Michael (Thomas) and Rachel (Emond) couldn’t be prouder. They are aware that Ruth is out, but it’s unlikely that Ruth can find them, so they don’t tell Katherine about it. However, the Sheriff’s sons – Steve (Pullen) and Keith (Guiry) – are also aware of her release, and Keith is none-too-pleased about it either. He doesn’t think 20 years is nearly enough for the murder of his father and wants to take a further pound of flesh. Keith feels more of a live-and-let-live nature, but that mollifies his brother not at all.
When Ruth visits the old farmhouse, she finds it nicely renovated by the couple living there – John (D’Onofrio) and Liz (Davis) Ingram. When Ruth discovers John is a lawyer, she opens up a little to him and he is convinced to help her find her sister, pro bono. Liz does some research of her own and is appalled to discover the truth, and confronts John with it, reminding him (accurately) that if it had been one of his black sons who had murdered the cop, he would never have made it to prison – he’d likely have been shot dead on the spot, and even if he had been tried and convicted, time off for good behavior would have been unlikely at best.
In any case, things boil to a head as John finds Katherine and the adoptive parents express their reluctance and eventual refusal to reunite the sisters. “What good would it do?” muses Michael. And Keith has a change of heart and ends up going after Katherine…but messes up and kidnaps the other daughter of the Malcolms, Emily (Nelson). As events come to a climax, we discover the truth of what really happened to the sheriff and why.
I liked this movie probably a little more than it deserved. A large reason why has to do with Bullock’s performance; it’s unlike anything she’s ever done. It isn’t a movie star performance; it’s the performance of an actress at the top of her game, and it’s not all about her line reading or even her facial expressions. You can see Ruth is a damaged, wounded person by the haunted look in her eyes. It doesn’t hurt that Bullock has a plethora of great actors around her, particularly Viola Davis, an Oscar winner who always seems to turn in an outstanding job no matter how small the role. D’Onofrio, Morgan, Bernthal and Thomas are also effective.
The reason it may not necessarily deserve my love is that the movie has a lot of contrivances; some of the plot points feel like they are there mainly to move the story to the conclusion the writers want, rather than a natural, organic progression from point A to point Z. One of the most egregious examples is the abrupt character turn of Keith. Nothing against the actor playing him, but he turns 180 degrees in attitude; there should have been a hint beforehand of his inner rage. I suppose the filmmakers wanted to make that turn a shock, but they ended up making it unbelievable.
Although set in Washington state, the movie was mainly filmed in British Columbia. The landscapes are suitably bleak and washed out (except, ironically, at the farmhouse). The urban scenes have a gritty, streetwise feel to them and the tough guy demeanor that Bullock adopts for her character feels like something someone who had to survive in prison would have to do once they got out.
This isn’t always an easy movie to watch, nor is it free from flaws. Still, there is a performance here worth checking out and overall, the movie is grim but effective. Not Oscar bait so much, but the kind of movie Scorsese might approve of.
REASONS TO SEE: Bullock gives a haunting performance, with a fine supporting cast. Realistic and gritty. Looks at the repercussions of tragedy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Contrived in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence and plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Based on a 2009 British miniseries, the film was originally meant for Angelina Jolie in the lead (although she never officially signed on) and was in on-again, off-again development before being resurrected in 2019.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/2/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews; Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Destroyer
FINAL RATING: 8/10