The Forgiven Synopsis: While driving to a party at a grand villa, a wealthy couple on the verge of divorce (Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain) accidentally hit and kill a young Moroccan man who was selling fossils on the roadside.
An elitist, alcoholic doctor kills a local Moroccan boy on his way to a socialite party. While his emotionally distant wife indulges in the splendor of the event, David undergoes a journey of personal reckoning when taking a trip with the boy’s mourning father in The Forgiven.
Challenging viewers with dour descents into humanity remains a specialty of writer/director John Michael McDonagh. The sibling of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Oscar-winner Martin McDonagh explores concepts with a similar blend of black humor and unrelenting dread. Underrated entries in his resume like The Guard and Calvary showcase John Michael as an auteur unafraid of taking viewers down unconventional and uncompromising narrative journeys.
With The Forgiven, McDonagh juxtaposes his gamut of pompous socialites against the impoverished Morrocan terranean they inhabit. The concept showcases an age-old conflict of class and morality, but the final product represents a frustratingly inconsistent experience.
McDonagh’s strengths are still on full display here. His viscerally tempered touch behind the camera serves as a perfect canvas for exploring the discontented sentiments simmering under the surface of his narrative. From the barren desert wastelands to the high-class luxuries of a villa centered amidst the emptiness, McDonagh skillfully allows his visual framework to speak volumes about the glaring class disparity taking center stage.
Like a conductor orchestrating a well-tuned ensemble, McDonagh also highlights the skills of his esteemed cast. Ralph Fiennes makes for a fittingly bitting and detached presence as David. His sharp tongue and dramatic gravitas are perfect tools for displaying the character’s initial disgust, with a slew of racist epithets and nasty one-liners highlighting accenting his utter distastefulness.
Once his journey into the Moroccan heartland begins, Fiennes wisely tones the character’s brash tendencies down in favor of an insular exploration of David’s self-realization of his inherent emptiness. Fiennes’ pained odyssey through guilt and discovery acts as a promising dramatic center, while McDonagh’s vibrant supporting cast provides a source for some uncomfortable black comedy. Jessica Chastain, Christopher Abbott, Matt Smith, and Caleb Landry Jones all chew the scenery with deliciously sinister glee as the vapid elites basking in their carefree worldview.
I appreciate McDonagh for his continued pursuit of challenging, tonal-hybrid features. Unfortunately, The Forgiven struggles in articulating its interesting conceits. McDonagh’s thematic pulse vies for thought-provoking revelations without ever earning them, often relying too heavily upon formulaic plot devices and overwritten dialogue to convey his point (Viewers will likely predict the ending long before the final credits roll). Class divide is a commonplace thesis in mainstream movies now, so much so that a right-down-the-line depiction of inequalities and mutual disdain between the two sides do not feel that nuanced anymore. Even some of the typical McDonagh meditations, like karmic justice’s inevitability and humanity’s constant wrestling with its own misdeeds, end up landing dead on arrival.
The Forgiven’s dual narrative pathways also clash against one another. While I can see where McDonagh intends his acidic portrait of elites as a counter-balance to David’s descent into Morrocan culture, the two approaches end up fighting for screentime against one another. As a result, neither arc receives the substantive undertones needed to excel, which leaves the characters undertaking a flimsy and generic design despite the film’s dialogue-driven nature. I think The Forgiven boasts the bones of a good movie, but the lack of meaningful shading prevents the final product from reaching its potential.
Competence and good intentions are not enough to save The Forgiven – an intriguing yet formulaic feature that gets lost amidst its intriguing idealism.
The Forgiven opens in theaters on July 1.
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