Going to a foreign country can be a scary proposition for many people, with language barriers, unfamiliar customs, and more being intimidating elements. This type of fear is often played up in movies, with oblivious or uncaring people getting into bad situations by not being aware enough of their surroundings or the people who live there.
The Forgiven has its fair share of indifferent characters, starting with married couple David and Jo Henninger (Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain), who are on their way to a party in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. The party, hosted by gay couple Richard Galloway (Matt Smith) and Dally Margolis (Caleb Landry Jones), is all about rich people indulging in excess, with the Moroccan staff barely able to hold back their disdain.
Before they can arrive, though, David accidentally hits Driss (Omar Ghazaoui), a young Moroccan man, with his car and kills him. When Driss’ father, Abdellah (Ismael Kanater), comes to collect his body, he insists David must accompany him to pay respects at Driss’ funeral. The film juxtaposes David’s journey, during which he must come to terms with his role in the death, and the bacchanal taking place back at Richard and Dally’s desert estate.
Written and directed by John Michael McDonagh, the film is a slow-yet-expertly-paced build. There’s little introduction for the characters, as the inciting event happens during the opening credits, but McDonagh proves himself a good storyteller, layering on intrigue in small drips. There’s a certain amount of dread that comes with David essentially being forced to go on the funereal trip, but McDonagh — adapting the book by Lawrence Osborne — is interested in much more than just revenge.
David, as standoffish as they get at the beginning of the film, has his mind opened not just by the experience of killing a man but by his interactions with the Moroccans, especially Anouar (Saïd Taghmaoui). But McDonagh is careful not to make his turnabout too much too soon, keeping David true to his character traits even while going through a revelation.
Nearly every person participating in the lavish party comes off as contemptible because of how entitled they act, but it’s the juxtaposition of what David is going through that ultimately makes their story worth telling. Jo, free from constantly arguing with David, lets loose in many ways with the help of Richard, Dally, and Tom Day (Christopher Abbott). Although we don’t know her character all that well, it’s clear that she is releasing a lot of pent-up anxiety.
With the talent of actors involved, there’s nary a bad performance in the film. Fiennes leads the way, of course, but newly minted Oscar winner Chastain is given plenty of room to shine. Smith has a presence to him that’s hard to ignore, and Abbott plays smarmy with the best of them. Taghmaoui does a lot with a supporting role that could have someone who receded in to the background.
The Forgiven is a type of morality tale where the morals have to compete with a lot of immorality. The success of the storytelling and the acting keep the two sides of film from becoming too trite or obnoxious, respectively.
The Forgiven opened in select theaters July 1.