The Forgiven (based on the 2012 novel by Lawrence Osborne) is a story about class, race and cultures clashing in the Moroccan desert. A group of rich, self-absorbed, white people gather at a mansion in the middle of the desert for a lavish party. When two of the guests hit and kill a child with their car on their way to the party, it causes some of them to get self-righteous, some to get introspective and some to use the accident as an excuse to reassess their lives.
The Forgiven (117 minutes) is about as subtle as it sounds. The party guests enjoy the exoticism of Morocco, while being safe in the mansion. The locals, on the other hand, struggle to make ends meet. The boy is killed trying to sell a trinket to tourists who would doubtless only want it so they can have an “interesting” souvenir from their trip. The hosts, who seem to feel like they understand this place, are just as oblivious, and racist, as their friends.
Writer/director John Michael McDonagh does set this story up in an intriguing way. The couple in the car are the Henningers. David, who was driving, is a functioning alcoholic, has a high opinion of himself and a low opinion of everybody else. His wife, Jo, is exhausted by him and more interested in having an adventure. David refuses to accept accountability for the accident, which is fine because their host, Richard, easily sweeps it under the rug with the police. Then the victim’s father arrives, insisting that David accompanies him home to bury the boy he killed. David, guilted into it by Richard, reluctantly agrees.
At that point, the story splits in two. On one side is David, journeying into the unknown, being forced to see the consequences of his behavior. On the opposite side is Jo, deciding she may as well still make the most of the party. She enters into a flirtation with Tom, a charming American. Seeing unlikable David pulled out of his stupor, as his initially more sympathetic wife has fun wading in the shallow end of things, certainly gives McDonagh a lot to work with thematically. The embodiment of the ignorant Westerner begins to see life clearer, as the “progressives” back at the mansion remain in their own extravagant world.
This works as a concept, but the execution is heavy-handed and doesn’t hit hard enough to connect the way it may have on the page. The stuff with Jo, Tom and Richard sort of lands as satire and the David material offsets it well enough in theory. Unfortunately, the characters are painted too broadly and the ending is more obvious than earned.
Ralph Fiennes is good as David, obnoxious and arrogant as though he’s too successful for anything to be his fault. Jessica Chastain is also good as Jo, who is tired of her husband’s boorishness and takes advantage of his absence by trying to find herself, barely even giving a thought to her missing spouse. She has strong chemistry with Christopher Abbott, as Tom. They reminded me of a romantic couple from one of those 1940s dramas where a pair of stars were stranded in Europe during a time of war. This is no doubt intentional and McDonagh uses it to poke at their idea of themselves.
There is a lot to admire in The Forgiven, yet there wasn’t enough to like. Though it is clear what McDonagh thinks about these people, he meanders too much in delivering his message. The rich exploit loudly while the poor suffer quietly. I guess packaging this to look like a prestige picture is meant to be part of the irony, but the whole thing just winds up feeling false.
2¾ out of 5
Ralph Fiennes as David Henninger
Jessica Chastain as Jo Henninger
Christopher Abbott as Tom Day
Matt Smith as Richard Galloway
Caleb Landry Jones as Dally Margolis
Saïd Taghmaoui as Anouar
Ismael Kanater as Abdellah Taheri
Written and Directed by John Michael McDonagh