It’s safe to say that the people responsible for selling the new thriller Unforgettable didn’t do a great job. Not only do the film’s various previews give away almost all of its twists and turns, but the sight of Rosario Dawson and Katherine Heigl throwing each other against the walls of expensive homes and shouting at one another has Golden Raspberry Winner written all over it.
And so it comes with great surprise that, even with the above questionable elements alive and well in the final cut, the feature directorial debut from longtime film and TV producer Denise Di Novi is far more entertaining and enjoyable than its advertising campaign suggests – and not in a “so bad it’s good” way, either.
From the opening Usual Suspects-inspired framing device in which a slashed and bruised Julia (Dawson) must explain to a pair of police officers (Aline Elasmar and Robert Wisdom) how a former flame wound up dead on her kitchen floor with a mountain of evidence pointing at her guilt, it’s clear Di Novi is well-versed in composing crisp, clear shots and establishing mood.
Flashing back six months to chronicle how Julia found herself in an interrogation room, experienced genre screenwriters Christina Hodson (Shut In) and David Leslie Johnson (The Conjuring 2) transplant our protagonist from San Francisco to the sleepy southern California town where she’ll live with fiancé David (Geoff Stults) and his daughter Lily (Isabella Kai Rice).
One quizzical moment of luggage lost on the highway aside, an event that seems primed to resurface yet never does, the writers and Di Novi excel at conveying stepmother discomfort, a feeling compounded by David’s Stepford-like ex-wife Tessa (Heigl). Superb as an insufferable third wheel, Heigl becomes doubly eerie when in the company of her mother (Cheryl Ladd), whose cold critiques of Tessa’s shortcomings raise a strong apple/tree metaphor having already seen the way Tessa behaves with Lily.
Unable to get over her divorce and looking for any way to regain favor with her former family, Tessa hits the jackpot with some comically eagle-eyed snooping of Julia’s texts on her iPhone’s screen, through which she discovers David and Julia are getting married – a secret whose hiding is never explicitly justified, though may be inferred based on Tessa’s resulting actions.
A related yet more successful shielding of information is the nicely drawn out suspense of why David and Tessa broke up. Some hints arise through her public Ice Queen behavior, private scheming to ruin Julia’s life and insight from David’s friends, but there’s nothing concrete for at least half of the movie, and even then David refers to the reason as more of a convenient excuse to end something long broken.
The cumulative build-up ably puts viewers in Julia’s paranoid mind, one in which she knows someone is messing with her but has no convincing proof to name a suspect. Though there’s an inherent silliness to much of Tessa’s transparent manipulation as well as Julia’s attempts to regain the upper hand, the lengths to which Tessa will go to get her way are both spooky and believable.
As her games grow riskier, Unforgettable keeps ramping up the tension through the volatile mix of Tessa’s crazy persistence and Julia’s suspect assertions of innocence until the film reaches its wild yet largely predictable climax. Perhaps aware of that ho-hum resolution, the filmmakers cap off the subsequent peaceful epilogue with a perfect final scene, one sure to send audiences home wearing devilish grins.
Grade: B. Rated R. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark
(Photo: Warner Bros.)