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Unforgettable: A feeble attempt at a psychological thriller

Denise Di Novi’s tepid first feature film, an “erotic thriller” that gets off on an ill woman’s unravelling and an abused woman’s panic.

Karen Ballard/Karen Ballard

2 out of 4 stars

Written by
Christina Hodson and David Leslie Johnson
Directed by
Denise Di Novi
Rosario Dawson, Katherine Heigl and Geoff Stults

In Unforgettable, Katherine Heigl (as ex-wife Tessa) enters the scene as a scorned woman and leaves it a psychopathic MacGyver with a severe, dissociative mental illness. Rosario Dawson (as the new girlfriend and target Julia) is an abused woman hiding her past from her fiancé and trying to start afresh. Geoff Stults (as ex-husband and now clueless fiancé David) is beloved by both women. This is the scalene love triangle of producer-turned-director Denise Di Novi's tepid first feature film, an "erotic thriller" that gets off on an ill woman's unravelling and an abused woman's panic.

Unforgettable was originally set to be directed by Amma Asante (A Way of Life; Belle) with Di Novi as producer, and starring Kate Hudson and the incomparable Kerry Washington as its leads – but that plan went sideways sometime in 2015, and those women are better off for it.

In likeness, Heigl's character is Mad Men's Betty Draper, but even more exacting. In composure, she is Marsha Brady, compulsively brushing her perfect blond hair, but with a terrifying focus. In truth, she is a woman bright enough to have been a star student at Stanford, but who chose to be a wife and helicopter parent instead.

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We're meant to understand Tessa's "madness" as the consequence of thwarted ambition and a mother (Charlie's Angels star Cheryl Ladd) whose words cut even deeper than her own. In the movies, "going mad" is shorthand for women exhausted from trying to live up to expectation.

Unforgettable presents a surprisingly conservative view of mental illness, one that would feel more at home in the pearl-clutching milieu of Leave it to Beaver rather than modern day SoCal. The film revives the bogus theory of the "refrigerator mother" from 1950s American psychology. That's when quacks such as Leo Kanner and Bruno Bettelheim falsely traced autism and schizophrenia back to uncaring or cold mothers.

Grasping at the straws of the thriller genre, Di Novi drew short. She chose to hark back to good old-fashioned bad mothering as the movie's primal scene – the place in Tessa's early childhood where it all went terribly wrong. In Unforgettable, it's Tessa's frigid mother – nicknamed Cruella Chanel by one character – who caused her daughter to become a psycho, who consequently ruined her marriage, who in turn uses her white privilege to degrade and humiliate the "exotic" woman of colour whose food she finds too spicy. Except that murderous impulse and psychopathic cyberfraud don't, in fact, originate from a chilly childhood. Lack of hugs does not a schizophrenic saboteur make.

If Unforgettable had veered more into camp – a genre Susan Sontag famously described as "the love of the exaggerated, the 'off,' of things-being-what-they-are-not" – maybe this movie could have been excused its many miscalculations. Just maybe it could have joined the hallowed ranks of cinema's other "crazy women," such as Kathy Bates crushing ankles in Misery, or a stiletto-wielding Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female. A recent, more skillful attempt at depicting "crazy women" was the campy indie movie Catfight with Anne Heche and Sandra Oh, dramatizing as it did the feral desire that nemeses can feel to beat each other to a pulp. With Unforgettable, we get a realistic movie that confusingly descends into pure revenge fantasy without a blink. It would seem that Tessa isn't alone in her dissociative tendencies.

There is a sort of terror that the movie does get right, and that is the residual trauma of having escaped domestic abuse. It also, startlingly, emphasizes the disbelief that survivors are met with by men – romantic partners and police alike. Dawson captures the malingering unease of never quite feeling safe, ashamed of having being beaten by her ex, as though the violence she faced ought to be carried with her like a dirty secret. (But if you want to see a movie that cuts to the heart of the tangled web of intimate partner violence, buy a ticket to Attiya Khan's new documentary A Better Man instead.) Here, the dizzying pairing of slice-and-splatter violence with the quiet horror of abusive relationships doesn't add up – it's used, unforgivably, as a gimmick.

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