Under the control of a less capable filmmaker, The Forgiven could have very easily been a boring film. It’s a testament to writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s talent that it’s not. As a matter of fact, while there are moments when The Forgiven edges toward tediousness, McDonagh’s ear for conversation and his impeccably written scenes keep the film moving at an involving pace for almost the entirety of its 117-minute runtime. That may come as a surprise, considering The Forgiven’s subject matter.
Set in Morocco, the film follows a group of rich elites as they come together to party in a desert compound over the course of one weekend. Their event becomes complicated, however, when David Henninger (Ralph Fiennes) and his wife, Jo (Jessica Chastain), accidentally run over a young Moroccan boy when he steps in front of their car while they are on their way to the film’s central party. When the dead boy’s father, Abdellah (Ismael Kanater), arrives to collect his son’s body, he demands that David make a journey into the Moroccan desert to bury his son with him. David, reluctantly, agrees.
From that point on, The Forgiven begins to follow two separate storylines: David’s journey into the desert, and the party that his friends and wife enjoy while he’s away. By focusing on both perspectives, McDonagh is able to effectively juxtapose the carefree, gratuitous celebration thrown by the film’s rich elites with the difficult emotional and physical realities of what life can be like for Morocco’s impoverished citizens. McDonagh uses that juxtaposition to turn The Forgiven into a quasi-social satire, but while the filmmaker’s observations are often precise and revealing in equal measure, they don’t amount to much in the end.
The good news is that, even if The Forgiven’s conversations ultimately end up going nowhere, they’re still deliciously fun to watch unfold. One of the film’s opening scenes sees Chastain’s Jo passive-aggressively call Fiennes’ David a “highly-functioning alcoholic” only for him to respond by saying, “I’ve always thought the ‘highly-functioning’ part should cancel out the ‘alcoholic’ part,” and that moment is an effective encapsulation of what every conversation in The Forgiven is like. The film’s characters constantly throw thinly-veiled barbs at each other, ironically acknowledging their faults without ever ceding an inch of ground.
McDonagh has always been good at writing dialogue, and he brings that skill in full force to The Forgiven. The film’s cast, which is made up of some of the best performers working today, doesn’t let the opportunity to sink their teeth into McDonagh’s words pass them by. Caleb Landry Jones and Christopher Abbott, for instance, winkingly chomp down on their lines and emphasize the absurdity of their characters’ actions more than any of their co-stars. It’s Matt Smith who ultimately proves to have the best ear for McDonagh’s dialogue.
As Richard Galloway, the gay man who hosts the party that throws Jo and David’s lives into disarray, Smith is delightfully, hilariously droll and nonchalant. His Richard is the most self-aware and unapologetic of the film’s elites, which is just another way of saying that he understands the distastefulness of his and his friends’ behavior but still delights greatly in taking part in their antics. A host with a love for provocation, Richard spends most of the film lovingly and slyly pointing out his friends’ hypocrisies to their faces, and Smith delivers every line with the same casual smirk and relaxed posture.
It’s Fiennes’ David who ultimately has to struggle with the most dramatic weight in The Forgiven though. Unlike Smith’s Richard, who happily stays in one lane throughout the film, David is forced to undergo an emotional and physical journey over the course of The Forgiven’s story. At the start of the film, he is essentially the walking embodiment of white British privilege, but the more time that he spends with Abdellah, the father of the poor boy he killed as a result of his own arrogant recklessness, the more that David begins to feel the weight of his own existence.
Through his conversations with Abdellah’s right-hand man, Anouar (Saïd Taghmaoui), David grows to understand the severity of what he’s done. As a result, the character’s self-involved, sardonic demeanor is eventually replaced by an overwhelmingly grim sense of shame, and Fiennes, to his credit, plays David’s transformation beautifully. Fiennes has, of course, long been one of Hollywood’s most capable performers, but his assured, subtle work in The Forgiven serves as a potent reminder of that fact.
Unfortunately, David’s transformation from an uncaring rich elite to a man sympathetic to those he previously considered beneath him is one that we have seen a thousand times before. While the film does go out of its way to embrace the perspective of its Moroccan characters, it’s David’s journey that ultimately emerges as the heart and soul of The Forgiven — a fact that just makes his transformation feel that much more tired. The dull familiarity of his journey, in turn, robs the film of much of its dramatic weight.
Given how hard-edged and slickly sharp so much of The Forgiven is, it’s hard not to feel when you’re watching it that McDonagh is going to upend David’s journey with some kind of subversive twist. But that moment never comes. Instead, McDonagh brings the film’s story to a conclusion that doesn’t feel nearly as powerful or poetic as it should. It’s an ending that feels as though it’s meant to evoke the same misplaced brutality that McDonagh created at the end of his stunning 2014 drama, Cavalry, but it nonetheless fails to match the weight of that film’s ending.
That’s disappointing, considering how precise and observant everything is leading up to The Forgiven’s lackluster conclusion. The film’s failure to bring anything new to a well-worn subject, therefore, makes it feel more like a collection of deservedly acidic observations than a searing or provocative morality tale. For some, that’s a sin that may be forgivable. But like a sincere apology that you’ve heard a thousand times before, The Forgiven tells a story that is, unfortunately, less than the sum of its well-made parts.
The Forgiven hits theaters on Friday, July 1.