REVIEW: The Forgiven [2022]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 117 minutes
    Release Date: July 1st, 2022 (USA)
    Studio: Roadside Attractions / Vertical Entertainment
    Director(s): John Michael McDonagh
    Writer(s): John Michael McDonagh / Lawrence Osborne (novel)

Everything must be faced.

It always fascinates me when a film synopsis blatantly lies. Every site I visit that provides a quick run through the premise of John Michael McDonagh‘s The Forgiven (adapted from Lawrence Osborne‘s novel) calls the catalyst for events a “random accident.” That’s what David Henninger (Ralph Fiennes) would like people to think. It may even be partially what happened. We know differently, however. We saw David drinking the entire day before heading out into the desert with his wife Jo (Jessica Chastain) to attend a party at their British friend’s Moroccan castle. We heard her tell him to cut back and him dismiss the worry with “roads are empty this late.” We watch him speed through the sand, distracted and yelling as he runs a young boy over.

Did the boy step in front of the car? Yes. Should he have been out there to begin with? No. None of that excuses David’s fault, though. He knows it. Their host Richard Galloway (Matt Smith) knows it. And his boyfriend Dally (Caleb Landry Jones) definitely knows it. While Dally has no qualms overtly rubbing this truth in David’s face, Richard would like to help smooth things over. He’s the one who lives here after all. Maybe if he calls the police and David can feign contrition when recounting his version of events, everyone can still enjoy the weekend’s planned debauchery. What they don’t understand (because wealth taught them understanding isn’t necessary) is that the desert talks. The dead boy’s father will come to collect him.

What starts as an intriguing character study pitting David’s complete indifference against Richard’s self-preservation masked indifference with a fair share of comic relief (a running joke with an always drunk Abbey Lee waking up in precarious situations) and acerbic dialogue (Smith and Jones have a wonderfully sarcastic rapport that perfectly contrasts the cultural clash in repression between England and America) soon splits into a paralleled reckoning that seeks to dismantle the past twelve years of the Henningers’ lives. David used to be a man of conviction. Jo used to be a woman driven by inspiration. Now they’re just another unhappy couple who go through the motions of an unhappy marriage. Separate them from their communally self-destructive patterns and maybe they can look at the world around them again.

It’s a trite undertaking at face value. I noticed about halfway through that McDonagh seemed to want to give David a path towards redemption and I reacted vehemently against it. I didn’t care who he was before. That’s not the man who carelessly allowed himself to kill an innocent kid in the night. He didn’t leave the body—so all isn’t completely lost, but his attitude went beyond shock. David proved himself a cold and unfeeling product of entitlement and superiority. Jo was no different. She might try to be his conscious, but it’s less about saving him than it is about proving she’s better than him. Neither will have trouble sleeping. And if they do, it won’t be about the boy. It will be about fearing retribution.

The same goes for Richard too. He wants to feel progressive and liberal, but the simple fact he’s bought this elaborate castle in Morocco proves how antithetical his lifestyle is to that ambition. And constantly reminding everyone that “the boy” has a name (Driss), doesn’t excuse how he doesn’t care. Richard wants to have fun and supply his guests (including Christopher Abbott‘s American lothario Tom, Alex Jennings‘ sexual deviant Lord Swanthorne, and Marie-Josée Croze‘s journalist Isabelle) an exotic locale to fulfill their fantasies. Letting David go off into the desert with Driss’ family (Ismael Kanater‘s Abdellah and Saïd Taghmaoui‘s Anouar) is the best thing for the party regardless of whether doing so will get him killed or save his soul. Their souls were all lost years ago anyway.

What are we therefore watching? Farce? Sure. Truth? Definitely. These fancy people came to the desert without a care in the world about anyone but themselves, so the death of an Arab boy stops nobody. While Driss’ life didn’t mean anything to them, however, his death provides a forum to spout politics, hypocrisies, and privileges without fear of repercussion. Some scoff and call each other out, but they don’t prove themselves to be any less callously monstrous. They’re all utilizing carefully cultivated façades to lie to themselves and pretend they’re better than those they abhor when reality shows they’re just as bad in different ways. You can’t stand-up for someone while still enjoying the product of that someone’s exploitation. Their presence here renders them complicit in Driss’ demise.

And, at the end of the day, they’re still afraid. Rather than try and talk to Abdellah (or even Richard’s head servant Hamid, as played by Mourad Zaoui), they declare “ISIS” and “savagery” and “ignorance.” They lock themselves behind elaborate gates and walls because they know their wealth and status is nothing but smoke and mirrors built upon the backs of the destitute and poor. To therefore watch as the elite snort their cocaine and have sex with each other while David’s deeply buried guilt leads him into the unknown with men who have every right to kill him for what he’s done to their family is to see that they have already become the hollow brats Jo believes future generations will become. That’s how deluded they are.

So, trite or not, David’s look behind the curtain is a captivating journey. He’s witnessing just how wrong his assumptions are even as some of his assumptions prove correct. He’s allowing the person he used to be before status and money turned him maliciously numb to rise back to the surface. And he’s realizing that he’s doing so too late. Repenting isn’t enough. Apologizing and charity aren’t either. Because the demon of capitalism and colonialism and white supremacy has already taken hold. It has already manufactured a seemingly impenetrable hierarchy reinforced by those who once believed themselves to be its dismantlers. This isn’t a story about redemption. It’s about excess and damnation. It’s about David realizing real progress only occurs when his ilk is pushed off the board.

How we get there isn’t perfect, but the sentiments are never confused. McDonagh (and I assume Osborne, having not read the source material) places his characters in scenarios that allow them to out themselves as frauds. I loved when characters who told David he had no choice but to go with Abdellah later remark how they can’t believe he went. I loved the complexity of characters like Anouar honestly existing between two worlds to both accept someone’s contrition and the reality that it’s not enough. Smith, Jones, Chastain, and Abbott are all very good, but the catty peripheral players might be even better. The true star, though, is Fiennes because he doesn’t become a different man by the end. He’s merely ready to admit who that man is.

[1] Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain in THE FORGIVEN Photo Credit: Nick Wall Courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Vertical Entertainment

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