A Moroccan-themed dark dramedy starring a colorful cast of characters that include a coked-up Jessica Chastain, abrasive Ralph Fiennes, a flirtatious Christopher Abbott, and Matt Smith and Caleb Landry Jones as a wealthy queer couple sounded like my idea of a good time. I would watch Chastain in just about anything, and the rest of the roster has consistently delivered excellent performances, even in questionable projects. The Forgiven is at least a fully-realized vision, with John Michael McDonagh serving as director, writer, and producer—I just wish it had something more significant to say beyond a flimsy meditation on privilege and atoning for one’s sins.
Headed for a party in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, a couple zooming through the desert accidentally hit and kill a young man in the road. Jo (Chastain, It Chapter Two, Zero Dark Thirty) hasn’t written in eight years but was once a very successful writer, whilst David (Fiennes, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Skyfall) has his own practice and is constantly flaunting his blunt feelings for others without a filter. As the incident occurs, the party hosts, Richard (Smith, Doctor Who, Last Night in Soho) and Dally (Landry Jones, Nitram, Get Out), have a veritable breakdown over a possible disruption to their plans. The authorities must come to identify the ID-less body and to take statements in the hopes of resolving the situation swiftly.
The area is said to be notorious for attempted carjackers and fossil sellers. A man eventually shows up for his boy—it appears the only way to appease him is for David to take a road trip back to the village to pay his respects and monetarily atone. This seems an easy request considering David quite literally hit and killed his child, but David makes a snide remark about his fear the man may be involved with ISIS. From here, The Forgiven devolves into a tale of two separate halves: for one, we follow David on his quest for forgiveness for the awful deed committed, while the other is basically rich folks partying and riffing on their lives whilst Tom (Abbott, Girls, Possessor) flirts heavily with Jo.
With a cast as stacked as the one in The Forgiven, where exactly did we go wrong here? Aesthetically, this is a beautiful-looking film, and well-made from top to bottom. However, script-wise, it is something of a mess. Risky dialogue is bound to offend at least a few people. At one point, David says all gay men come to Morocco to seduce young boys. Tom’s remarks about hookers finding him irresistible is made worse when he suggests that they are useless if unwilling to do anal. Morally, Jo doesn’t appear to be much better either, making an identical remark about ISIS as her husband.
I take no issue with morally reprehensible caricatures or meandering stories. Yet, The Forgiven teems with potential given not only the talent involved, but the genuine glimmers of excellence that shine through, making it extra frustrating. Smith is a scene-stealer as the sassy Richard, and Chastain looks to be having a great time as Jo. The real problem is the general clashing of tones—the attempts at comedy do not blend well with the darkness of the scenario, further hammered down by a jet-black, abrupt ending that leaves little room for interpretation. There is nothing subtle about any of the messaging in The Forgiven, and not even eye-popping cinematography can earn complete forgiveness.
The Forgiven hits wealthy privilege full-throttle when it comes to limited release theaters on Friday, July 1st.
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