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THE FORGIVEN (2022) review

July 14, 2022


written by: John Michael McDonagh
produced by: Elizabeth Eves, John Michael McDonagh, Trevor Matthews & Nick Gordon
directed by: John Michael McDonagh
rated: R (for language throughout, drug use, some sexual content and brief violence)
runtime: 117 minutes
U.S. release date: July 1, 2022 (theatrical) and July 15, 2021 (VOD)


John Michael McDonagh’s latest feature is a slow examination of guilt and, as the title suggests, forgiveness. It’s a subject rife with conflict, both for the forgiver and the forgiven. As a writer/director, McDonagh has a record of delivering thoughtful and provocative character studies, often with a relatable albeit acerbic comedic touch, such as “The Guard”, “Calvary” and his last one, the quirky “War on Everyone”. With “The Forgiven”, McDonagh is adapting a 2012 novel from Jeffrey Osborne that follows an elite Western couple who get into an incident while visiting a remote Moroccan location. While the story’s tension doesn’t quite built to a satisfying level, there are still surprises, intriguing personalities, and engaging locations to take in. It’s a story that will find viewers wondering if the protagonist can indeed be forgiven and even if he is, would he be able to truly forgive himself?

A dismissive English doctor David Henninger (Ralph Fiennes) and his American children’s author wife, Jo (Jessica Chastain) are a couple in the waning years of their marriage. They appear to have given up on arguing and simply tolerate each other. She understandably shows a disdain for his alcoholism, while he shows a disdain for seemingly everything and anyone. Yet they feel compelled to keep up appearances and attend a weekend party being thrown by David’s old public school chum, Richard (Matt Smith) and his boyfriend, Dally (Caleb Landry Jones), at a renovated estate in Azna, nestled in the High Atlas Mountains in the Moroccan desert. As the couple travel to the destination at night in their rental, they get lost and in his fatigue, frustration, and inebriated state, David winds up striking and killing a local young man.



They arrive late to Robert’s decadent party with blood on them and the lifeless teenager sprawled out in their back seat. Jo is more disturbed by the incident than David is, who wants to report the matter to local authorities and move on with the evening. Richard has a knowledge and working relationship with the police, who after a brief discussion are able to write off the situation as an “accidental death”. It seems Jo and David will be able to rejoin the rest of the guests – including Aussie model Cody (Abbey Lee), French photographer Isabelle Péret (Marie-Josée Croze) and Tom (Christopher Abbott), the later is a New York financial analyst who’s taken an interest in Jo – that is, until the boy’s father arrives at the estate.

When Abdellah (Ismaïl Kanater) arrives to collect the body of his only son, Driss (Omar Ghazaoui), and rather than receiving any monetary payment, he only asks that David join him and his translator Anouar (Said Taghmaoui), on the journey back to their village. Reluctant at first, David agrees to go along with the request, knowing full well there’s a good chance he’ll be killed for what he’s done. We get the impression there’s a part of David that feels he may deserve what’s coming to him and that this event has started to sober him. He may try to hide the fact that he has feelings (even a heart) when he dismissively says, “They might be f**king ISIS for all I know,” but it also masks an indication that there is indeed something gnawing at him under the surface. David is unprepared though for this unexpected time of self-reflection he will experience as he travels a foreign land with perfect strangers. Meanwhile, Jo stays behind and gradually begins her own self-evaluation, considering who she is when David is not around.



“The Forgiven” has one of the most curious and alluring openings for a film that I’ve seen this year. As the two leads played by Fiennes and Chastain arrive at Tangier by boat on a clear and sunny day, the end credits of the film appear in red letters, winding backwards through crew members (and an odd Memoriam to Scott Wilson, an American actor who died in 2018 and is later seen during a brief scene of “The Walking Dead” that David watches in a hotel). It may not be anything extravagant or spectacular, but McDonagh is doing something we don’t often see and it’s a unique way of establishing characters, location, and drama. It also leaves one to wonder what kind of ending “The Forgiven” will have if the beginning is what we’d traditionally see at the end of any other film.

It’s during this opening that we are introduced to Driss and his friend, in scenes that are intercut with David and Jo driving at night aimlessly to their weekend soiree. The teenagers are hidden behind a rock ledge near the fated road where Driss will be run over, hiding behind a rock ledge and discussing how they will make money by selling fossils that have been dug up, while denigrating the “faggots at Azna”. This is also the beginning of the ongoing examination throughout “The Forgiven” that looks at the cultural difference between the entitled white and the indigenous Arabs of the land.



After the tragic accident has occurred in “The Forgiven” and we venture to enters Richard’s party, McDonagh offers the dichotomy between the lifestyles of the affluent who are either visiting or have bought property in Morocco and those who are native to the area. Richard has employed Moroccan help (servants) that refer to the privileged as “infidels” behind their back and look down upon the homosexual activities of Richard and Dally. Clearly they’ve seen everything and their disdain for the debauchery and excessive frolicking (there’s the typical dancing, boozing, snorting coke, and so on) they see on display is understandable. The fact that they are never treated as fully-realized people by those they serve is probably more damaging than the behavior they witness.

“The Forgiven” decidedly shows two different worlds of the same story as we go back and forth between David and Jo’s individual stories. There is palpable tension in the atmosphere David finds himself in, as he becomes an observer and quietly comes to be humbled by what he has done, all while being quite cautious toward Abdellah. The time spent with Abdellah and Anouar winds up being an opportunity for them to be humanized, allowing David to see them as men with the same hurts, anguish, desires, and hopes that anyone else would have. The doctor has few but meaningful conversations with the two men and both Kanater and Taghmaoui give soulful nuanced performances, lending a surprising depth to characters that would typically be relegated to stereotypes. While Jo’s side of the story offers a bit more levity and a satirical lens to what the film is saying about socio-economic politics, it also provides some great flirty banter between Chastain and Abbott that almost feels like an old meet-cute during a travelogue from the 1930s.



When the couple are inevitably reunited, much has changed, specifically from David’s perspective and when Jo tells him “we need to talk”, he abruptly tells her, “No, we don’t” and that may be the first time we agree with David. This many be the first time in a long time David is sober and not just the dry bottle kind of sober.

Shot in Morocco and populated with many Moroccon actors, “The Forgiven” manages to balance the each character’s subplot carefully, offering time for enough characterization for Fiennes and Chastain, while pointing out the often jarring differences between the two cultures. One particular visual is awkwardly uncomfortable, when we see fireworks from Richard’s party go off in the sky behind Abdellah as he carries his son’s dead body back to his vehicle. It’s a moment that certainly speaks for itself and it’s one of many great scenes lensed by cinematographer Larry Smith (who previously worked with McDonagh).

While much of “The Forgiven” makes you wonder how much more Osborne’s book delves into who these characters are, “The Forgiven” still examines complex humanity and cultural differences with enough nuance, leading to a wholly satisfying and appropriate ending that seems inevitable.



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