Review: The Plot (and Point) of The Forgiven Gets Lost in Gross Class and Culture Clashes

A slightly gross treatise on white privilege, writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s (War on Everyone; Calvary) The Forgiven takes place over a long weekend in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, a place that features the extremes of wealth and culture and all the good and bad that accompanies such extremes. The film is adapted from a novel by Lawrence Osborne.

Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain play unhappily married couple David and Jo Henniger, who are driving to a house party in a grand villa in the middle of the desert. Along the way, they accidentally kill a young man who is known in the area as one of the dozens of people who sell rare fossils to tourists. Unbeknownst to them, he was also planning on robbing them with the help of his friend, who is hiding out nearby. They put the body of young Driss (Omar Ghazaoui) in their car and continue on to the villa, where they tell their host, Richard (Matt Smith), about their accident, which may have been made worse by David’s excessive drinking. The police are called, and it seems the affair will be swept under the rug, until Driss’ father (Ismael Kanater) arrives at the house the next day to meet the man who killed his son. Thinking all the father will want is money, David is prepared to give him money. Instead, the old man requests that David accompany him back to his village to attend his son’s funeral. Worried this may be the death of him, he still agrees to go so as not to appear cowardly.

At this point, The Forgiven begins to lose its focus by becoming two less interesting films. Not surprisingly, David’s journey with the father and two family friends (including Wonder Woman’s Saïd Taghmaoui, who seems to be the only person David can trust) is the more interesting of the two threads. There’s an underlying tension in every moment because we’re not sure what will happen next, although David’s attitudes toward these people and Muslims in general are pretty deplorable, so we’re not really sure he shouldn’t be punished. 

Meanwhile, his wife becomes entrenched at the villa, becoming closer with Richard’s boyfriend Dally (Caleb Landry Jones) and the only other American, Tom (Christopher Abbott), to whom she is undeniably attracted. The other partygoers are various forms of gross and overindulgent—Abbey Lee gives a particularly fine performance as a squealing party girl, who can rarely stand up straight. Every so often, someone gives a thought to David’s situation but not enough to stop partying or flirting or just generally being selfish. Operating as something of a Greek chorus to the proceedings is Hamid (Mourad Zaoui), a servant at the villa who quietly judges and comments on the appalling behavior he witnesses, making him easily my favorite character in the film.

From a cultural perspective, The Forgiven is a fascinating journey through customs and attitudes and the western world looking down on anything that doesn’t live like it does. Fiennes has never had issues playing or embodying unlikeable characters, but you have to look impossibly hard at David to find his redeeming qualities, and some may not bother putting in the effort to do so. Conversely, Chastain rarely plays characters so empty, to the point where even in her worst films, she at least gives the people she’s playing some depth and value. But not here. While there’s nothing inherently confusing about the movie, its true point is illusive and perhaps non-existent. The acting is top-notch, but filmmaker McDonagh makes a rare slip here, to the point where I’m not sure he should be forgiven.

The film is now playing theatrically in a limited release.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.