The Forgiven gets too caught up in the bigger picture, and the intriguing puzzle pieces don’t shine as much when they’re all put together.
The Forgiven is a thematically ambitious film, something that works in its favor upon watching and becomes a point of criticism in retrospect. He positions his characters as sitting on a number of axes of difference – gender, sexuality, nationality, class, religion, age – which can at any time intervene and determine their relationships with each other. Power imbalances are problematized, prejudices are aired, and the world is presented as a place defined by jagged edges that refuse to be sanded down. It sets a compelling backdrop for a tense crime-drama tale that’s fueled by gaps in knowledge that the film seems in no rush to fill. As long as these gaps remain, they leave room for small details to echo meaning, but the impulse to resolve the story at its end diminishes its possibility of impact. With some time to think about it later, viewers might have a hard time figuring out what he actually had to say about all of these hot topics it seemed to be about.
Writer-director John Michael McDonagh’s The Forgiven opens with two story strands colliding to leave the mess that eventually defines the film. In the first, wealthy couple David (Ralph Fiennes) and Jo (Jessica Chastain) travel through Morocco on their way to a weekend party hosted by friends Richard (Matt Smith) and Dally (Caleb Landry Jones) . They bicker and drink, and end up having to cross a barely marked desert road at night. In the second, two young Moroccan men, disillusioned with their lives of digging for fossils to sell, decide to take more drastic action against the wealthy foreigners they know are meeting in the estate of the famous gay couple. While talking to his friend about all they have planned, one of them throws a gun. David and Jo, lost, drunk and arguing, hit one of the teenagers with their car when it hit the road. They arrive at their destination, the party in full swing, with his unidentified corpse in the backseat.
The immediate sequence then reintroduces a bifurcated structure. Richard’s attempt to solve what David claims was an accident through his local police connections is cut short when the boy’s father, Abdellah (Ismael Kanater), arrives unannounced to claim the body. His son’s name was Driss (Omar Ghazaoui), and honor demands that David accompany him to their village for a proper burial. David, told by Richard that he has no preferable alternative, agrees to leave despite reservations that they might have more than spiritual and financial restitution in mind. The film follows both David’s journey and Jo’s time at the party, particularly her interactions with Tom (Christopher Abbott), a fellow American who presents a stark contrast to her cynical British husband. The David component is by turns tense and touching, a grieving process tainted by the audience’s uncertainty about each other’s true intentions, with the threat of physical violence always on the horizon. Jo’s, meanwhile, is a The good life-esque portrait of the aimless upper class at play, complicated by their relationships with the Moroccan servants who seethe under their smiles.
The Forgiven is a movie that thrives on detail, and sadly, not everything interesting about it can be unpacked here. There are small creative choices that on their own say a lot, like Richard’s Dickie nickname, which (in the context of Smith’s charming performance) is reminiscent The Talented Mr. Ripleyis the patron saint of the lazy rich Dickie Greenleaf. Small performance moments accomplish the same thing, ranging from Jo de Chastain briefly going wild after a faint glimpse of the staff bringing her breakfast to the way David de Fiennes downs a certain beer at a pivotal point in his journey. The way McDonagh’s script holds up the truth about what happened that night on the road, while signaling to the audience that it does, encourages viewers to notice these details, and the time spent looking at them. interpreting is stimulating.
In the end, however, The Forgiven gets too caught up in the big picture, and the intriguing puzzle pieces don’t shine as much when they’re all put together. Jo’s storyline may seem lacking in impact to viewers, and while that’s part of the purpose of Stranger’s Oasis, attempting to give it a growth arc seems somewhat shallow anyway. David’s, meanwhile, feels too transformative, too simplistic in a way that betrays the nuances of every other part of his journey. A good point of comparison here might be Maggie Gyllenhaal. The lost girl, which also feels particularly literary in its allusiveness and ambiguity, but does a much better job of taking this to the end. It is the wish of this critic that The Forgiven had ended with the aforementioned beer, but as it stands, the film’s coda does the rest a disservice.
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The Forgiven hits theaters Friday, July 1. The film is 117 minutes long and is rated R for language, drug use, some sexual content, and brief violence.
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