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The Ending of ‘The Unforgivable’ Explained

There is no easy path to retribution.
The Unforgivable Sandra Bullock
By  · Published on December 10th, 2021

Ending Explained is a recurring column in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. This time, we consider the ending of the Netflix Original movie The Unforgivable. Yes, prepare for spoilers.

Movies involving the justice system can take a number of shapes. One is the story of someone attempting to atone for a crime. Another is the story of someone assisting another person in avoiding persecution. Nora Fingscheidt’s The Unforgivable ends up being about both.

The Netflix Original begins with Ruth Slater (Sandra Bullock) being released from prison after serving a long stint for murdering a cop when she was a teenager. With her freedom, she has one goal: to find her little sister, Katie (Aisling Franciosi), whom she raised. But this is no easy feat, as Katie was adopted, her surname was changed, and now there is no accessible information about her.

After a long, painstaking quest, Ruth gets the opportunity to see her lost sibling again, in spite of the parole system and the girl’s adoptive parents not wanting the sisters to be reunited. Katie’s adoptive sister, Emily (Emma Nelson), finds the letters that Ruth wrote from jail. She is moved and reaches out to Ruth, giving her the location of Katie’s piano concert later that day.

Ruth needs someone to accompany her to the concert due to the restraining order Katie’s family took out against her. She asks Liz Ingram (Viola Davis), the wife of her former lawyer. But Liz refuses to help, calling Ruth a murderer. This causes Ruth to break down and admit the then-five-year-old Katie actually killed the cop, and she went to prison to protect her little sister from the truth.

Talk about a twist ending!

Ruth comes painfully close to being reunited with Katie, but then she gets a phone call. On the other line is Steve Whelan (Will Pullen), the son of the cop Ruth was sentenced for killing. As retribution for the death of his father, Steve has kidnapped Emily, mistaking her for Katie, and hidden her in a warehouse. Ruth convinces him to let her go, and when the three of them walk out of the building, the police handcuff Steve and Ruth.

In the final moments of the movie, Ruth and Katie get their long-awaited reunion. Seeing her older sister at the other side of a parking lot, Katie walks over and embraces her.

As with any good crime drama that focuses on familial drama, there are a number of ways to interpret the ending of The Unforgivable. Of course, this is a happy ending for Ruth. She has spent an entire jail sentence away from her little sister — her only family — and now they’re back together again.

But what does this ending mean for Katie? Earlier in the movie, Katie’s adoptive parents, Richard (Michael Malcolm) and Rachel (Linda Edmond), ask Ruth, “Who are you really doing this for? Katie, or yourself?” Because Katie has no memory of the murder. She repressed the memory. And this begs the question: will a relationship with Ruth surface Katie’s buried trauma? Will it remind her that she was the one who pulled the trigger?

The Unforgivable leaves this question unanswered, perhaps to comment that it’s never easy to rebuild a life or a relationship after a traumatic incident. Ultimately, there will undoubtedly be casualties along the way.

In Unforgiven, the 2009 British miniseries upon which The Unforgivable is based, the reunion between the two sisters happens a little differently. Ruth and her little sister (called Lucy in the earlier version) go to rescue Emily from the kidnapping together. This allows for the relationship between the sisters to develop more and leaves fewer blanks for the viewers to fill in. But Fingscheidt changed the ending in her adaptation, likely to say that Ruth and Katie’s reunion was never going to be easy.

In The Unforgivable, it’s not just Katie’s future that’s unclear. Even though Ruth has ultimately gotten what she wanted, the road ahead for her is particularly uncertain. Just because Katie is happy to see Ruth doesn’t mean that her new parents are going to support the siblings’ relationship any more than they have for the past couple of decades. If anything, they’ll probably be less in favor of it, given the fact that Ruth put Emily’s life at risk. Plus, Ruth violated her restraining order, and as a parolee, that’s not great.

Regardless of the messy situation the two women inevitably have found themselves in, The Unforgivable is emotionally satisfying. Despite all of her hardships, Ruth never gave up on her sister, and that paid off. Whatever happens after the credits roll, this is a moving story about the strength of a sisterly bond.

The Unforgivable is now streaming on Netflix.

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Aurora Amidon spends her days running the Great Expectations column and trying to convince people that Hostel II is one of the best movies of all time. Read her mostly embarrassing tweets here: @aurora_amidon.