‘Unforgettable’ Review: Katherine Heigl and Rosario Dawson Fight a Trashy War on Motherhood

Freed from likability, Heigl tears it up as an obsessive ex with mayhem on her mind

Katherine Heigl has that stare. It’s the stare that asks, “Why are you placing that glass on the table when you know it will leave a ring?” The stare of ongoing, generalized anxiety. The stare of taking it personally. The increasingly hostile stare that wonders why everyone and everything always has to be so damn disappointing.

The stare that lives somewhere, uncomfortably, in between Mary Tyler Moore in “Ordinary People” and Kathleen Turner in “Serial Mom.”

Heigl maintains that stare through much of “Unforgettable,” brilliantly so, and for a solid narrative reason. Her character, the perfectly platinum blonde Tessa, is aggrieved. Her blandly handsome, mostly personality free, but still financially successful ex-husband, David (Geoff Stults, “Grace and Frankie”), has moved on, happily, the way those sorts of men always seem to do. He has a new fiancée, Julia (Rosario Dawson); he has a microbrewery that’s coming up in the beer-world; he has joint custody of his and Tessa’s young daughter Lily (Isabella Kai Rice). And none of this is acceptable.

Why? Well, mental illness, of course, a subject the film blithely treats with the usual Hollywood carelessness. But that’s not the only player in this otherwise entertaining trash-thriller. There’s another monster on the loose: Tessa’s own mother (Cheryl Ladd, fully enjoying the chance to be the picture of matronly evil), a frozen, relentless scold who goads Tessa into doing whatever it takes to win back David or, at least, to destroy his happiness.

There is not now and probably never will be a shortage of films like this, the sort where female characters easily assume the balance between unhinged derangement and the precision tactics of serial killers all for the sake of retaining a guy who barely rises to the occasion of worthiness. The clueless David is a particularly useless trophy husband, whose reaction to Julia’s mounting anxiety and terror is to suggest that they give it all a few days to blow over. That is why “Unforgettable” is, in many respects, unworthy of its title. We’ve seen this before.

Not helping: producer turned director Denise Di Novi (“Crazy Stupid Love”), who relies on horror movie tropes of creepy silences and sudden shocks. And the script by Christina Hodson (“Shut In”), while offering a few clever spikes of originality, somehow feels like it’s been meddled with, toned down, perhaps by people more powerful than screenwriters.

That leaves it to the leads to soldier through. Dawson is fine here, dialing down her natural charisma, seemingly in order to give Heigl the chance to shine as super-villain. Heigl, in turn, takes her icy character’s suitcase full of damaged personality clichés and runs like an Olympian. Framed like a phantom in black shadow and silvery silhouette by legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (“The Right Stuff”), Heigl slices through this silly little universe, consumed with her mission, bigger than all of it.

She stalks. She hacks. She grimace-smiles. She has angry sex with waitstaff. She polishes silver with barely-contained fury. She identity-thieves. She rides horseback in a manner that announces a ferocious, yet sublimated, desire. She wields fireplace equipment in a ghostly, Angel of Death nightgown, like a cross between Piper Laurie in “Carrie” and Daenerys Targaryen. She vapes.

Most of all, she gets inside Julia’s head, which means she’s won before the two ever get to their climactic third act throwdown. At that point, because nothing matters in this sort of movie, you begin to root for Tessa.

And frankly, she has a point. New stepmom-to-be Julia loses track of Lily in a crowded public place. She buys Lily a new quilt from a flea market and it gives the kid a rash. She can’t brush the child’s long hair properly, sending her home with tangles and knots. Tessa understands that people who can’t pay attention to detail are infuriating, and she’s going to do something about it. The movie insists otherwise, but the popcorn votes are firmly on her side.

This is good news for Heigl, whose film career has erred on the side of extending her “Grey’s Anatomy” brand of niceness to diminishing returns and bad off-screen publicity. Only in 2013’s comedy flop, “The Big Wedding,” was she given the opportunity to deliver something fresh. In a movie that was deservedly unseen by most people, Heigl stomped through the action tossing out mean-spirited one-liners, rising above her co-stars like her career depended on it. She was great. She is here, too.

And in a world where Matthew McConaughey was allowed to work his way back from “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past,” maybe this can be her turn. Just don’t call it The Heigl-ssaince. That would be undignified.