These days, when so many movies are shamelessly superficial, and emphasize action and CGI effects over story and characterizations, THE FORGIVEN (2022), a new drama now playing in theaters and available to rent on Prime Video, is like a breath of fresh air, even if that air blows from the arid hot Moroccan desert.
THE FORGIVEN opens with married couple David (Ralph Fiennes) and Jo Henninger (Jessica Chastain) driving through the dark roads of Morocco on their way to one of David’s friend’s wedding. Lost, arguing with his wife, and heavily inebriated, David fails to see a young man in the road ahead of them, and he hits him and runs him over.
At the party in a ridiculously rich mansion in the middle of the desert, David’s friend Richard Galloway (Matt Smith) and his soon to be husband Dally Margolis (Caleb Landry Jones) entertain their guests and wonder why David and Jo are late. When they find out, they are none too happy, as they realize this will complicate their wedding. Even though they don’t trust the authorities, Richard makes the decision to call the police and report the accident and that they have a body on the premises, since David and Jo brought the body back with them from the desert road.
The police arrive, don’t ask for any bribes, and explain the body will have to remain until the boy’s family comes to claim it, which happens soon after, as the boy’s father Abdellah Taheri (Ismael Kanater) arrives and after seeing his son’s body, asks to meet David. The expectation is that Abdellah will demand money, but instead he requests that David return with him to pay his respects and bury his son’s body. David initially balks at the idea, fearing that Abdellah could be an ISIS terrorist, but he eventually changes his mind and agrees to go.
The remainder of the movie follows David as he journeys with Abdellah to bury his son and begins to learn about Abdellah’s Muslim culture and traditions, juxtaposed with scenes of the insanely lavish and ongoing wedding party with Richard and Dally and all their guests, including an American named Tom Day (Christopher Abbott) who grows close to Jo, as we learn that she is not happy being married to David, and this time away from him makes her ripe for a tryst with an interested young American.
THE FORGIVEN is a thoroughly captivating, intense movie that I really enjoyed from start to finish. It gets off to a riveting start with the car accident in the opening moments of the film, and it never looks back. Directed and written by John Michael McDonagh, based on a novel by Lawrence Osborne, THE FORGIVEN is both shot and written with great care and attention to detail, especially to its characters. The story is full of all kinds of different characters, and they all make their mark and are all written and acted to near perfection. McDonagh’s work here reminded me of the early work of Peter Weir, specifically THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY (1982) and WITNESS (1985).
The screenplay, unlike so many screenplays these days, really hammers out its characters and brings them all to life. Earlier this week I saw THE GRAY MAN (2022), a new Netflix actioner starring Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans. It has performed so well financially that Netflix has already announced a sequel. Yet, I found this movie terribly boring, as other than the action sequences, it had nothing to offer, with dull characterizations and a sterile plot. Yet, it’s making lots of money and is getting a sequel, which explains why movies like this continue to be made, while movies like THE FORGIVEN, which is superior in every way, will struggle to be recognized.
Which is too bad because it tells an intriguing story and features a whole host of fleshed out characters who could have walked off the pages of a modern-day F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.
Ralph Fiennes is excellent as David, the alcoholic husband who snubs his nose at those beneath him, who is full of confidence and is not afraid to stir the pot, and who at the outset is about as sympathetic and likable as a scorpion. When he hits and kills the boy, he shows no remorse, other than a shrug and a “these things happen” attitude. But if there’s one character who journeys to self-awareness in the film, it’s David, as his time with Abdellah opens his eyes, not from bonding with the father, but from a combination of fear— it’s uncertain if the boy’s father will kill him for revenge— and a closeness to the deceased boy’s spirit. Add this to the long list of superb performances by Ralph Fiennes, following upon the heels of his equally engrossing acting in THE DIG (2021).
Jessica Chastain plays David’s wife Jo as a woman who is unfulfilled and unhappy with her marriage, and ironically, just as she invites the young American into her life at the party, unknown to her, David undergoes a transformation of character. Like Fiennes, Chastain is a superior actor, and she is every bit as good here in THE FORGIVEN, as is the rest of the cast.
Matt Smith, who we just saw in LAST NIGHT IN SOHO (2021), is memorable as Richard, the man who knows how to throw a wedding party. Smith, of course, is most famous for playing Doctor Who a few years back.
Caleb Landry-Jones makes for a lively young groom who is not above insulting his guests. It’s another in a long line of strong performances by Landry-Jones, who we’ve seen in such films as GET OUT (2017), THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017), and THE OUTPOST (2019). The cast is really a strength here.
Likewise, Ismael Kanater is menacing and effective as the deceased boy’s grieving, probing, and uncertain father. While he brings David back with him as part of a tradition, he’s also trying to learn as much as he can about the man who killed his son and how it all happened. Kanater possesses the steely eyes of a Lee Van Cleef or Robert Shaw.
Said Taghmaoui is also very good as Anouar, the interpreter who accompanies David and Abdellah, and who actually becomes friends with David. Mourad Zaoui is superb as Hamid, Richard’s patient and dedicated head servant. And Christopher Abbott is amiable as Tom Day, the American who is attracted to Jo and makes no secret about it.
There are more characters as well, all of them equally as fleshed out and interesting.
The screenplay by John Michael McDonagh is really a strength of this movie.
In addition to the wealth of characters, there’s a captivating plot, and a theme worth exploring, of the wealthy and decadent Westerners who seem to have no further desire in life than to have fun, get high, and have sex, juxtaposed with the poor and traditional Muslims who simply want to survive. The contrast is unsettling.
It’s never said outright in the movie, but the plot drives home the reasons why Muslims in Morocco or elsewhere would hate Westerners. And the character who starts off as the most unlikeable of the lot, David, is the one who makes the journey of self-awareness learning just how shallow and uncaring he once was before finally embracing responsibility for the taking of another human being’s life.
THE FORGIVEN is a superior movie, a film that knows how to create characters and tell a story, and the story it has to tell, and the characters in it are both worthy of your time, even if the wealthy Westerners often represent the worst humanity has to offer.
That’s kinda the point.