The Unforgivable


Ruth Slater doesn’t like what she sees in the mirror.

(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
NEXT:
Jockey

Riding the Rails


All aboard!

(1997) Documentary (PBS Bob “Guitar Whitey” Symmonds, John Fawcett, Clarence Lee, Rene Champion, Richard Thomas (narrator), Peggy De Hart, C.R. “Tiny” Boland, Jim Mitchell, James San Jule, Charley Bull, Arvel “Sunshine” Pearson. Directed by Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys

 

In this era of economic upheaval due to the pandemic, it is a good idea to remember the lessons of the Great Depression. While things aren’t quite as bad now as they were then, it is well to remember just how devastating it was. People who were living comfortably found that they lost everything, literally overnight. Many discovered that there was no work of any kind to be found where they lived. Their solution was to get out of town, but most of them couldn’t afford transportation.

Their solution was to hop on freight trains and “ride the rails” to whatever destination the trains were headed in. Not only was this illegal but incredibly dangerous; it wasn’t uncommon for people trying to hop a freight train to lose their footing and fall underneath the wheels of the train. There were also the railway police and local law enforcement who weren’t above administering a beating to those they discovered illegally hitching a ride.

Documentary filmmaker and historian Michael Uys was fascinated by a book written during the depression by Thomas Minehan called The Boy and Girl Tramps of America which depicted the lives of teenage hobos traveling from place to place. He disguised himself as one of them and rode the rails with them for awhile, getting their stories. Uys figured it would make a good film and thus came this documentary.

Originally, it debuted at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival but most who have seen this know it from its appearance on the distinguished PBS documentary series The American Experience back on April 13, 1998. Since then it has been rebroadcast from time to time and appeared on DVD off and on. Now, it is available for streaming for the first time.

Uys and co-director Lexy Lovell interviewed in depth ten former rail riders – nine men and a woman – who were in their 70s and 80s at the time this was filmed (as this was 15 years ago, several of them have since passed on). They share their stories of hardship and exhilaration. There are similarities in their tales; all of them speak of their experiences matter-of-factly as they talk about the dangers of the road, but also they speak of it with nostalgia. They all remark upon the freedom they had riding the rails; unconstrained by possessions, jobs or relationships, they would pack up at a moments notice, searching for the next town, the next horizon.

Many teens left home for just that reason – the allure of adventure, seeing the world when nothing held them at home. Some were informed by their parents that they had to leave as mom and dad could no longer afford to take care of them. Some fled abuse. None of those interviewed seemed to regret their time on the road.

In fact one of them, Bob “Guitar Whitey” Symmonds, was still riding the rails in the summers and invited one of the filmmakers along. “I’ll keep doing it until I can’t swing myself on board a boxcar any longer,” he declares. The filmmakers use archival photographs, often lingering on the evocative faces of the depression, and filmed footage to show contemporary accounts of the lifestyle. The soundtrack is rich with the music of the era, like Jimmy Rogers and Woody Guthrie, warbling about the allure of the rails, of the call of the horizon and of the loneliness of the road.

I wouldn’t say it’s a powerful documentary, although there are moments that are stirring. Mostly, it is just evocative – reminding us of a bygone era. As a historical document, it is absolutely invaluable. Most of those who rode the rails in the depression are gone now, their stories silenced. While I would have liked to see a little bit more context (perhaps some commentary from sa sociologist or a historian to better explain the history behind the depression and rail riding), it is good that the filmmakers were able to collect them, for succeeding generations to enjoy and learn from.

REASONS TO SEE: The stories are indeed fascinating. The archival photos and footage make wonderful use of close-ups. The Americana soundtrack is terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: Could have used a little more background information and context.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity but otherwise suitable for the entire family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Uys wrote to over 40 publications, including Modern Maturity, to find potential subjects for interviews. He ended up receiving over 3,000 letters in response and, realizing he would need help with the project, enlisted Lovell.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Hoopla
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The American Hobo
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Little Things

Every Act of Life


The play’s the thing.

(2018) Documentary (The Orchard) Terrance McNally, Don Roos, Nathan Lane, Peter McNally, Christine Baranski, Chita Rivera, Richard Thomas, Angela Lansbury, F. Murray Abraham, John Slattery, Tyne Daly, Rita Moreno, John Kander, Anthony Heald, Lynn Ahrens, Jon Robin Baitz, Audra McDonald, John Benjamin Hickey, John Glover, Edie Falco. Directed by Jeff Kaufman

 

Terrance McNally is without question one of the most important playwrights of the late 20th century and on into the 21st century. Even now, pushing 80, he remains a vital creative force. He was one of the first Broadway writers to put openly gay characters in his plays; he was also among the first to come out himself.

This documentary is an attempt to capture the life of McNally, from his beginnings in Corpus Christi, Texas where he was hopelessly bullied, to Columbia University where he essentially majored in Broadway, Eventually he took an interest in writing stage plays instead of novels (which under his beloved English teacher in Corpus Christi Mrs. Maurine McElroy who encouraged him when both his alcoholic parents did not). He took up clandestine boyfriend Edward Albee whose career was just starting to take off at the time; McNally, on the other hand, was struggling especially when his first work was roundly panned by the critics.

Since then, McNally has written such gems as Frankie and Johnnie in the Claire de Lune, The Ritz, Master Class, Lips Together Teeth Apart, and the musical version of Kiss of the Spider Woman. He has won four Tony Awards and countless other honors. Jeff Kaufman rounds up a battalion of his friends to talk about the various facets of his personality and the highlights of his career. Broadway greats like Lan, Abraham, Lansbury, Roberts and Glover have all had their careers positively impacted by McNally and they are generous in their praise of the writer.

The film is a little bit over-fawning, rarely admitting to any warts or disfigurements, although they mention his bout with alcoholism which Lansbury apparently talked him down from. He has had a fairly large and diverse group of boyfriends, ending up with current husband Tom Kirdahy with whom he has a stable relationship so far as can be seen. Still, while some of the relationships get some coverage, others are almost mentioned in passing.

We hear about how generous he is, how insecure he is about his own work but we don’t really dive deep into the work itself. It feels at times we’re just getting a greatest hits version of his plays and the meaning of them and what they mean to others gets little interest from the filmmakers. I would have liked to see more analysis and less anecdotes but in the whole, this feels more like a group of friends gossiping rather than a truly academic study of McNally’s work. Frankly, this really will only appeal to those who live and breathe Broadway and kind of ignores everyone else.

REASONS TO GO: A very informative film for those unfamiliar with McNally. McNally’s gayness is emphasized, something a lot of films are afraid to do even now.
REASONS TO STAY: There are too many talking heads. There’s also a little bit too much hero-worship going on.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content as well as profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its world premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wrestling With Angels
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Life Feels Good