The scars of colonialism and continued imperialism are all over The Forgiven, a film with lofty thematic ambitions. Between examining the gap between the westerners who vacation in Morocco and the locals who sell fossils to wealthy visitors and critiquing the frivolity with which these visitors live their lives, The Forgiven has a lot on its mind. This is not uncommon for writer and director John Michael McDonagh, often making challenging yet entertaining films that raise thoughts and critique modern society. The Forgiven is no exception, this time pairing him with the biggest stars he has worked with to date. Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain play married couple David and Jo Henninger. They have flown to Morocco to visit their friends Richard (Matt Smith) and Dally Margolis (Caleb Landry Jones), who are throwing a big party in their vacation home in Anza. Between fighting and David’s drinking, the couple have a tumultuous journey – Anza is well off the beaten path in Morocco, requiring a long drive out to the house – that is compounded when they strike a young Moroccan boy with their car. Driss (Omar Ghazaoui) is killed, placed in the back of their car, and brought to Richard and Dally’s home where the group figure out how to proceed.
The Forgiven is a bit of a balancing act. Between developing its characters, their flaws, and trying to showcase them working through or embracing those issues, discussing the impact of westerners in Morocco, the struggles of the locals, and showcasing the destructiveness of this upper-class western party lifestyle that pervades the vacation compound, The Forgiven has a breadth of ideas to explore thematically. Add in the tragic accident and the eventual arrival of Driss’ father Abdellah (Ismael Kanater) to bring his son’s body back with him, and a pseudo-road trip movie as David both accompanies the body and returns with Abdellah’s friend Anouar (Saïd Taghmaoui); The Forgiven’s elements are fighting for space. In casting such a wide net, the film loses some valuable nuance and subtlety. Instead, it treats it all as surface-level with crass and on-the-nose characters who help spell out exactly where McDonagh is trying to go. Some of it is on the characters being out-of-touch with reality and how exploitative they are, while the rest is the film itself being out-of-touch. Though, to its credit, The Forgiven tries to show these visitors as being in the wrong, subjugating the local Moroccans into servants at their outlandish parties, never calling them by their name, and speaking about the locals as equivalent to tricksters and savages, the film nonetheless spends so much time with these tourists that it ends up trying to redeem them in the end. After all, it is “The Forgiven”. By the time they meet eventual fates, the film loses sight of its already slim Moroccan empathy to play up the plight of the Henninger’s.
This is emblematic of the film’s additional struggle with critiquing the people it showcases. One can tell that McDonagh is less than amused with the party revelry. Drunken partygoers falling into the pool, old men dancing around with young women, and a distinct divide between the guests openly drinking in front of nameless Moroccan-Muslim servants who can barely disguise their disgust. Yet, as it shows them off and has them all deliver exceptionally crass dialogue, The Forgiven begins to feel remarkably juvenile. It has the energy of a teenager who just learned to swear, dropping f-bombs and sexual dialogue into just about every sentence. Part of it is undoubtedly the characters and how these people might talk, but it becomes so pervasive that it crosses the line from critiquing to emulation. It seeps into just about every scene in the film with David’s excursion to Driss’ family home being about the lone exception. This dialogue style helps a bit, especially when Jo is flirting with Tom Day (Christopher Abbott) and the pair toy with one another with barely disguised sexual innuendo, but it largely contributes to the film feeling empty. As thin as its ideas are, the juvenile and surface-level treatment of it all leaves The Forgiven as a collection of good ideas given poor treatment.
Where the film finds greater success is in its performances. Ralph Fiennes, especially when sharing the screen with Ismael Kanater, is magnificent. He brings to life the crude cruelty of a man disillusioned by the world, while washing away this hard, protective exterior to show genuine emotion by the time he has to apologize to Abdellah. One can see the toll the event took on David from the very beginning, even as he verbally tries to dismiss culpability and shift blame. This is a man desperate to view himself as good, only for this self-image to shatter. Fiennes captures considerable grace and reticence, as well as solemn resignation in the end as David stares down the barrel of forgiveness and regret. Kanater speaks only a few lines in English, but every moment he is in the frame, he has a presence that casts a long shadow. Their tense relationship, few scenes actually speaking to each other, and the mixture of anger and sorrow in his body language, help Kanater to bring considerable depth of feeling to the table. Saïd Taghmaoui as a laid-back and charismatic man tasked with helping usher David to Abdellah’s house is also a standout. His final scene, saying so much without words, exemplifies the power that Taghmaoui possesses in every moment. Jessica Chastain leans into a bit of over-acting to good effect, letting it all hang out – especially with her chemistry with Christopher Abbott – while Matt Smith and Caleb Landry Jones as a pair of slightly-bickering and undeniably pompous lovers sets the unusual and off-kilter tone The Forgiven is after very well. Even as the script falters and McDonagh struggles to condense every theme and feeling, it is the cast that makes The Forgiven into a nearly good film. They capture every ounce of emotion, characterization, and power that McDonagh is after, ensuring that even as it falters, the film is incredibly watchable.
Too scattered and misguided to find much poignancy in its powerful, noirish setup, John Michael McDonagh’s The Forgiven is a misfire. The cast is exemplary from beginning to end, helping to elevate the picture, but owing to a limp, juvenile script and the film’s struggle to bring many of its ideas to a satisfying conclusion, they can only do so much.