An uncertain and meandering work that struggles to craft a compelling story when intermixed with ineffective commentary, The Forgiven is doomed by its own tepid adherence to trope that robs the experience of any teeth. This is a shame as, despite the poor way it ends up being constructed, the promising pieces are all there. Getting to see leads Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain on screen is always intriguing, especially when they take on cruel characters whose flaws are at the forefront of the performance. It also is directed with a sure hand by John Michael McDonagh whose past films, like the magnificent meditation on faith that is Calvary, have established that he is no stranger to navigating the often painful intricacies of a complicated story. While there are flashes of this more focused grappling with a theme attempting to burst through in The Forgiven, it only ends up being smothered by its own worst impulses. While there is promise and potential in its premise, it never is actually excavated enough to justify its surprisingly egotistical unraveling into errant mundanity.
The story, based on the novel of the same name by Lawrence Osborneplaces us with the abundantly unhappy couple of David (Fiennes) and Jo (Chastain) as they make their way to the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco for a weekend getaway party being thrown by an old friend. Both exude wealth and wretchedness, a state of being that is masked by the occasional wry witticism. David is a doctor and Jo a struggling writer, both dispassionate about almost all aspects of their lives. That is, except for the drink. David in particular drinks to excess, burying his own discontentment in the bottom of bottle after bottle. Despite warnings from Jo not to continue drinking, he ignores her with ritualistic rudeness that can only come from routine. As David gets behind the wheel and continues driving recklessly through dark roads he is unfamiliar with, impending tragedy is looming around the corner.
Just before arriving at their friend’s extravagant house, David hits a local boy who had stepped out in front of their car. Driss (Omar Ghazaoui) never stood a chance as the car stops when it is far too late to make any difference. While Jo is completely distraught, David begins to downplay the incident and try to cover up his responsibility for what happened. He is assisted by the party’s host Richard, played with external mirth that disguises a quiet menace by Matt Smith, who convinces the corrupt police that it was simply an accident. Thinking he has avoided any accountability, as the wealthy always do, David settles in for what he hopes will be a fun weekend where he can wash away any memory of what happened with booze. Enter Abdellah Taheri, the boy’s father who has come to claim the body and whatever possible justice he can find. Instilled with grace amidst unimaginable grieving by Ismael Kanaterhe says that David will need to come back with him to his village to help lay Driss to rest.
Reluctantly, David agrees and sets in motion what will be the rest of the film. As he makes the two-day journey to the village, McDonagh juxtaposes the tragic procession with the debauchery of the uncaring Westerners partying at the lavish home. It is there that Jo begins to take part in a fraught flirtation with a charming yet callous man named Tom. Played by a perpetually mesmerizing Christopher Abbott, the two bounce off each other with an ease that disguises their shallowness. Of course, the vapidity of these people is the point as their complete lack of care for anyone other than themselves is both entirely realistic and still no less revolting. McDonagh puts a fine point on this when the body of Driss is being carried out of the luxurious house to a vehicle and fireworks begin to go off. Just before this happens, Richard remarks that he had forgotten this was going to happen. It turns the moment into a painful punchline, a visual demonstration of just how disconnected any of these people are from the harm they have caused. Richard attempting to save face by saying he had forgotten is a weak excuse and attempt at absolution that betrays his total ambivalence about the situation. It is actually a rather sharp visual piece of storytelling. The only problem is, while likely unintentional, it also serves as a metaphor for the prevailing flaws of the film itself. It shows how, despite all its possibly good intentions, the more interesting story happening in the shadows will always be subsumed by the cheap spectacle of the rest of the story.
As we witness David travel through the desert, there is the uncomfortable sense that his perspective both narrows the focus of the story and undercuts what seems to be its purpose. We see almost everything through his eyes, as if the immense loss he inflicted on others is just another way for him to learn about himself. This centering of David on this journey of self-discovery despite his past transgressions feels like a reaffirmation of what the story should deconstruct. After all, who cares whether he learns from this incident when a family has lost their son? It reinforces a trope that takes away from the more thematically rich elements of the story that never get to come up for air. It would be as if Parasite made its story about the way the wealthy family learned a nice little lesson from the experience of trampling others underfoot. It not only makes for a less interesting story, but a more safe one that we’ve seen plenty of times before. To see the suffering of downtrodden characters be made into a tool of salvation for others rings hollow. When this superficial story is drawn out over such an extended runtime without any subversion, it only makes it all the more shallow.
There are scenes where the direction and visual composition offer more to take in, like when characters crossfade alongside each other at a key moment. It shows McDonagh is doing his best to offer some sort of deeper observation on the story as he has adapted it. The problem is that it is not supported by the text. There are scenes David shares with the side character Anouar, played by an underutilized Saïd Taghmaoui, who escorts him back that seem to be gesturing at something more and even might smuggle in a deeper meaning when reflected back on. It just requires looking far too hard at a simple portrait of people that is much too safe in its storytelling. Some have referred to it as a satire, though it never offers bold enough observations to truly earn such a title. There is a version of this story that could have played up the more satirical elements, especially when it comes to the local staff of the house that are occasionally given the slimmest amount of depth. It just never takes them seriously enough as characters, making it hard to take the story itself seriously at the same time. While it was imperfect, a story similar to this as told in the series The White Lotus was much more impactful and somber in its final moments than anything being attempted in this film.
Even an ending that may complicate the story ends up feeling both contradictory and like a cop out. Without going into plot details, the way the final moments are constructed makes it feel like an easy out that the film thinks is actually more challenging. Even being generous to this final scene and saying that it does offer some sort of statement can not make up for the rest of the film’s approach to the material. Even with Fiennes and Chastain giving it their all in a manner that makes the story far more engaging than you would expect, they can not carry it all on their own. The most ambitious and audacious performances in the world can not overcome storytelling that is otherwise safe to the point of being timid. Characters who could otherwise challenge and push the story into interesting directions are reduced to being set dressing, leaving us with little to grasp onto beyond the cruelty of our central characters. While stories about the rich needn’t always have everyday people within them, look to the strength of Succession For this in action, this was a film that feels incomplete without their broader influence. It only ends up shooting itself in the foot by sidelining them, leaving us with a journey centered around a cruel man who kills a child and half-heartedly attempts to redeem him. It not only does not draw us in, it actively pushes away anything that could provide something more. By the time it all neatly ties itself up, its prevailing impact is that of a shrug.
Rating: C +
The Forgiven comes to theaters on July 1.