Sandra Bullock Tackles Post-Prison Life in “The Unforgivable”

Photograph: Kimberley French/Netflix

The first time we see Ruth Slater (Sandra Bullock), she is just freed after 20-year imprisonment for murdering a local sheriff. She is a wreck of a human. Sleepless nights have taken a toll on her face; dark circles under her puffy eyes, stress wrinkles, and unkempt hair. Her face always looks cold (she barely smiles in the entire film) from the freezing winter and the aftermath of past mistakes. She walks around with despair, defeat, and pain. She is the portrait of a woman who’s been damaged and cannot put up with it anymore.

Through bleary fragments of flashbacks, we begin to comprehend the present-day elements about Ruth Slater better. She was always tough on the outside, but never this wounded. We learn about her state of mind, the root of her wound, and the path she is willing to take in her ‘new’ life. As she illustrates the idea of bouncing back, she faces challenges of reintegrating into society.

The Unforgivable attests to the popular belief that ex-cons don’t have a place in the community. Despite their well-intentioned fervor for becoming law-abiding citizens, they are deemed to pose a danger to society. Society is penalizing former convicts not just to the period of incarceration but also to a whole hell of a life. Though Ruth Slater is mindful of that harsh reality, she begs to differ. “I got to be a convict wherever I go?” Slater asks her parole officer why she needs to reveal her ex-con status to her employer. He retorts, “You’re a cop killer everywhere you go. Yes. The sooner you accept it, the better.”

For Ruth Slater, post-prison life and starting anew are inevitably unattainable when she’s reminded of it. Society continues punishing ex-offenders long after they have paid their dues. Such a mindset hampers the perks of getting work and becoming economically productive members of society. Their traits are greatly outweighed by their convictions, and society incessantly associates them with that premise. They are bereft of civil rights and hence earn scarce judicial attention when subject to social prejudices within the patterns of community interactions. This perpetuates the reality that ex-offenders constantly occupy permanent second-class citizenship. Further marginalizing them will only translate into a higher rate of their behavior and result in recidivism.

Although The Unforgivable acknowledges the stigma against former felons by the general public, it doesn’t drench us with the struggles Slater tries to fit in with the outside world. Fitting in is not the driving force behind her actions. Instead, she finds redemption by relocating her long-estranged sister. Unlike Brooks Halten (1994’s The Shawshank Redemption), who baffles himself about his fate, inculcating apprehension about getting back to the society, Slater doesn’t let the judgmental society get the best of her. She’s screwed up about abandoning her young sister, which is the consequence of her conviction and imprisonment. Her only hope is to re-establish a bond with her sister.

Whatever a character wants to pursue post-prison life, living on the edge of society is an arduous, if not impossible, task. Because at the end of the day, everybody wants to belong.

The Unforgivable is on Netflix now.

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