Director: Denise Di Novi
Cast: Rosario Dawson, Katherine Heigl, Geoff Stults, Isabella Kai Rice, Whitney Cummings, Cheryl Ladd, Simon Kassiandes, Robert Wisdom
MPAA Rating: (for sexual content, violence, some language, and brief partial nudity)
Running Time: 1:40
Release Date: 4/21/17
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 21, 2017
Unforgettable takes a familiar cliché—an insane person making life hell for someone—and at least attempts to hold it to a standard of realism. It contains two central performances that help keep the movie grounded, too, especially when it comes to the villain, who is portrayed with a level of sympathy. There's also a modern twist to the hell-making, which means that the script eschews the usual psychological torture and attempts at physical violence in favor of a technological angle that is fairly frightening.
Based on what we typically get from this sort of movie, it's fair to assume that this would be either, at best, trashy or, at worst, trash. That, for the most part, it's neither of those is a pleasant surprise, although that certainly can't be said of the fairly conventional third act (which, admittedly, does at least one intriguing thing in the final staging and sympathetic perspective of the inevitable showdown). Screenwriter Christina Hodson and first-time director Denise Di Novi are clearly trying to go against the grain here. It's just a shame that it still feels so routine.
The setup of this battle is between a new fiancée and an ex-wife. The fiancée is Julia (Rosario Dawson), who has moved from San Francisco to Southern California to live with David (Geoff Stults) before they get married.
He has a daughter named Lily (Isabella Kai Rice) with his former wife Tessa (Katherine Heigl). Tessa puts on a polite smile and a gracious attitude when she first meets Julia, but we already have seen Tessa looking at herself in the mirror, applying makeup and systematically brushing her hair with a blank stare on her face. It's as if she's looking through her reflection. The look she has when brushing Lily's hair is similar, as she's grooming her daughter, not helping her.
We get that image—of Tessa staring at her reflection with apathy—quite a bit here. It's the sort of broad act of characterization that serves as a narrative shortcut, because that's not the way that well-adjusted people look at themselves in the mirror. The repetition is both unnecessary, since once is enough (and twice is too much, while three times is enough for us to want to yell that we get the point, already), and unfortunate. There's a lot more to Tessa than just a hollow façade of perfection.
The most daring aspect of Hodson's screenplay—in relative terms, of course, considering the material with which we're dealing—is how she turns Tess into a victim herself. She's the product of her mother (played by Cheryl Ladd), who, we can imagine, probably went through the same hair-brushing routine with a young Tessa as Tess now does with Lily. The mother's first appearance is marked by scolding criticism offered in a staccato intonation of politeness—how her daughter didn't make scones from scratch, how she scrapes her knife on a plate, how the silverware could really use a polish. Tessa has become that kind of mother to Lily.
Julia can see it, because her own father, as she puts it to her soon-to-be stepdaughter, wasn't always nice to her, even though she loved him. Julia understands this dynamic better than the girl or the mother can, and it's enough to make Julia believe that Tessa is just an ordinary woman who needs a little bit of time to adjust to the new situation.
It's a foolish assumption, obviously, because Tessa is possessive she-devil who wants and needs her perfect life to return to the way it was. The plot of the rest of the movie should be obvious at this point: Tessa messes with Julia in ways that make it seem like Julia is in the wrong, while Julia keeps getting closer to comprehending the machinations and manipulations of her unwanted opponent. There are two major components to Tessa's game. The first is in using the internet to learn about Julia's past and create a false online identity for her competition. The second is to bring Julia's abusive ex-boyfriend (played by Simon Kassianides) into the mix—making him believe that the woman who once had a restraining order against him has changed her tune.
That second part is troubling, if only because Hodson is creating tension out of the idea that the abuser inevitably will come calling (Di Novi even creates fake-out scares from episodes of Julia's PTSD). More intriguing is the way that Tessa gaslights her ex-husband into thinking that Julia might be having an affair. She would know the signs, since their marriage ended on account of an affair that Tessa had.
Tessa is a complex enough character that she doesn't come across as a one-note villain, and Heigl's chilled performance, considering how far she could have taken this character, is an important part of that. Dawson, too, is solid as a woman forced into confronting her own troubles as things escalate. The two characters' standoff, by the way, ends in a twisted kind of embrace that suggests a different way their dynamic could have gone throughout the movie. Even if some of its turns are unexpected, Unforgettable takes the standard route.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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