Before Beyoncé Knowles was a living hit factory/fertility goddess, she beat the snot out of Ali Larter.
In the distant past of 2009, when both Knowles and her co-star Idris Elba were on a somewhat lower tier of fame, it made sense for them to take the leading roles in the studio-fronted erotic drama Obsessed. They played a married couple terrorized by Larter’s unstable interloper, a secretary who spontaneously develops an insatiable desire for Elba’s power executive.
The film is pretty wild: There’s drugging and woman-on-man rape and a performance from Elba that was shockingly excellent to anyone still waiting to get around to those DVDs of The Wire. But in the modern pop cultural memory, Obsessed has primarily been reduced to the movie where Beyoncé head-butts Ali Larter.
Eight years later, it looks like the same fate could very well befall the new Unforgettable, the directorial debut feature from Denise Di Novi that opened to an anemic box office take in its first weekend. “It just didn’t resonate with the intended audience,” said Warner Bros.’ Jeff Goldstein of the disappointing debut — a statement that says a lot about the languishing state of the sexy psychological thriller and viewers’ opinion thereof.
Which isn’t to say Unforgettable is working in an entirely outdated mode. The new film tweaks the classic psychological thriller dynamic just a touch: The flaxen-haired psycho position is now filled by ex-wife Tessa (Katherine Heigl, in a sinfully amusing turn that hopefully heralds a coming Heiglssance), and the target of her rage is her former spouse’s new fiancée Julia (Rosario Dawson, also perfectly cast). The added family matters aren't incidental to the film, and end up giving Unforgettable much of its stealth dramatic power.
For as much as Unforgettable is indeed the film in which the former Grey’s Anatomy starlet attempts to dead-ass murder Rosario Dawson, it is also a film of valid ideas and sound drama. I’d like to preemptively beg forgiveness for the following phrase, but Unforgettable is one film that does not deserve to be forgotten — or, more pressingly, remembered as a hokey camp artifact.
Unforgettable is the last of a dying genre breed
Unforgettable excels at something that has become perilously uncool to excel at. It wasn’t so long ago that psychological thrillers laced with a healthy dose of deviant sex appeal were relatively common in Hollywood. In the ’80s and ’90s, horny cat-and-mouse games like Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct dominated the box office and spawned an entire cottage industry’s worth of pale imitators hoping to leech a little bit of their earning power by association. The best of the genre didn’t go over the top, but instead raised the top by operating within an exaggerated sort of reality.
These pictures had to ask a lot of their audience in terms of suspended disbelief. Once a viewer accepted that a homicidal hottie was not outside of the realm of possibility, however, the folks at home were richly rewarded with lurid fun that could also terrify without a protective shell of irony.
But present-day audiences don’t always know what to do when films straddle the blurry line between melodrama and regular drama, most especially where sexuality is involved. Consider the curious case of Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, who scored a hit with Basic Instinct (word-of-mouth buzz about Sharon Stone’s intimate anatomy didn’t hurt), only for the public to turn on him with the massively misinterpreted Showgirls. Critics and audiences alike rejected the film as an overblown train wreck without a shred of self-awareness, amusing by way of schadenfreude, failing to recognize Verhoeven's exaggeration as being in service of a vicious satire on the garishness of American entertainment.
Like that go-for-broke paean to the sexual image, Unforgettable blows right past the so-bad-it’s-good classification, and resists simple, ironic camp appreciation. Simply put, it’s good, but good at a specified mode of entertaining that takes some acclimation for those who aren’t used to it. Rolling Stone's in-house critic Peter Travers dunked on Di Novi's film with the opening diss, "Unforgettable is definitely the wrong title for a movie you want to erase from your memory the second it ends." The A.V. Club's review lamented, "With its formulaic story and hackneyed dialogue, all there is to do in between moments of self-aware outrageousness is admire the decor." Variety's review tellingly described Heigl as "so icily sociopathic that it’s too bad the borderline-campy movie wasn’t willing to go full tilt into B-movie 'psycho-Barbie' territory."
Unforgettable has a functional brain plugged into its smokin’ bod
Breezing past Di Novi’s film as an object of derisive laughter that shamefully fails to lean into full camp means missing out on some surprisingly well-measured perspectives on the sort of mature themes that often go unexplored in mainstream studio films. And the fact that Unforgettable will be one of a minuscule number of female-fronted studio productions this year speaks volumes about how seriously the mainstream is willing to take art created by and ostensibly geared toward women.
As much as we may wish otherwise, Unforgettable isn’t just 100 minutes of Katherine Heigl trying to gouge out Rosario Dawson’s eyes. The film also happens to contain a plot and characters, two of whom happen to be well-shaded women with recognizably real insecurities. Di Novi probes both sides of a difficult personal transition, as Julia and Tessa struggle to accept their new roles as stepmom and ex-wife, and fight to break out of cycles of trauma.
Long assigned the thankless role of the humorless shrew to her doofy male counterpart, Heigl slyly subverts her own onscreen persona by taking it to a chilling extreme in Unforgettable. But even as she conjures a villain for the ages (everything about Tessa fits together perfectly, from her tight self-knotted ponytail to her immaculately kept home to her milk-white wardrobe), she exposes a frail human beneath. She can’t help but be intimidated by Julia, the new model whom she sees as her younger, sexier, more accomplished competition. Conversely, former on-the-go internet writer Julia fears she can’t provide sound mothering to her new stepdaughter, an anxiety that Tessa identifies and subtly exacerbates until Julia comes undone.
Julia and Tessa also share the lingering psychical scars of abuse, and the anxieties that accompany them. We’re informed that Julia lived through a relationship marred by domestic violence a few years prior to the events of the film, and she can’t bear to tell her husband-to-be for fear of being looked down on as damaged goods. Likewise, the shadow looming behind Tessa’s Type A neurosis takes the form of her implacable, austere mother. Any Psych 101 vet can trace the line between Tessa’s mother’s constant insults and the intense expectations Tessa places on her daughter. Though they’re filtered through a Hitchcockian plot of gaslighting and deception, both women’s emotional motivations tell a more mature story than the pulpy content belies.
Curiouser still is how Unforgettable and its ilk court and yet refuse to engage with the recurrent question of race. Both Di Novi’s latest and Obsessed pit a crazy white lady — an aggressively white lady, at that — against a woman of color. In the case of Obsessed, where Knowles and Elba seethe with a sexual heat largely and regrettably absent from Unforgettable (excepting one sweltering montage of coatroom coitus cross-cut with laptop-assisted masturbation), the white intrusion feels especially conspicuous. The 2015 thriller The Perfect Guy put a slight spin on the concept by placing a woman in a lethal love triangle with Morris Chestnut and Michael Ealy, and tweaked the racial subtext through a light-skinned/dark-skinned dichotomy between black men.
But in all instances, the knotty issue of race goes entirely unremarked upon. By ignoring these dynamics while simultaneously placing them front and center, the films have their politicized cake and apolitically eat it too. Those so inclined to see a charged parable of white envy toward black success can do so, and everyone else remains none the wiser.
With Unforgettable, Di Novi encodes the faint suggestion of subversion into an American studio film in the year 2017, and better still, she uses the veneer of disreputable throwaway entertainment as her cover. It's both covert and overt, too stylistically heightened to scan as truly radical, but simultaneously resistant to usual Hollywood typifying.
Unforgettable carries too much significance to be mocked or disposed of
A curious case study from any angle, Unforgettable contains multitudes: a refreshing change of pace from an increasingly hidebound studio system, an affecting thriller that uses catfighting as a Trojan horse to smuggle in earnest depictions of the struggles women face in middle age, a launching board for the Katherine Heigl comeback we never knew we needed.
Above all else, however, Unforgettable is a film without scare quotes. The true-blue fear in Dawson’s eyes when she encounters her abuser after years apart cannot inspire foot stomping from midnight madness crowds looking for a for a target of ironic derision.
Di Novi plays the game, tossing in pregnant pauses and sinister musical cues that fashion Tessa into something along the lines of Norman Bates with a membership in the First Wives Club. But as she gets her kicks and delivers on the trailer’s promise of supreme-bitch theatrics, not a single moment in Unforgettable gives the impression that Di Novi is ashamed or even self-conscious of the film she set out to make. She believes in the great clash between carnal rivals, between the dark past and the promising present, between blondes and brunettes. Why shouldn’t we?