Often, it can be fiendishly fun to watch bad behavior on film. Just look at something like The Wolf of Wall Street, where three hours of the worst actions imaginable are depicted. Tons of cinema features nothing but violent carnage. So, why does something like The Forgiven end up leaving such a bad taste in my mouth? A lot of it has to do with the movie only being half-hearted in its commentary on the actions, content merely to observe and then rush to wrap things up in literally the final moments. It’s a shame, too, since the filmmaker is incredibly talented, as is the surprisingly loaded cast, who mostly aren’t given a ton to work with.
The Forgiven is obviously a morality play, but spends way too long with repetitive awful behavior and never sells us on any character evolving. At least our two main protagonists are meant to, but aside from some nice performances, we never see it depicted. Especially considering how this is coming from the man who gave us Calvary and The Guard, it’s decidedly a disappointment.
Wealthy married couple David Henninger (Ralph Fiennes) and Jo Henninger (Jessica Chastain) are on their way to attend an old friend’s lavish weekend party at a villa in Morocco. Speeding through the desert after having been drinking, David accidentally hits and kills a teenage boy. Arriving late to the party, hosted by Richard Galloway (Matt Smith) and Dally Margolis (Caleb Landry Jones), which is already getting wild, the couple, along with local police, try to cover the accident up. After all, they’re rich and who would miss this kid? Then, the boy’s father arrives, with some form of justice on his mind. He wants David to come with him back to their village, to pay his respects. David just wants to be done with it, as well as avoid blame, so he agrees.
As David heads to the boy’s village, Jo stays behind and spends time with American guest Tom Day (Christopher Abbott). Those two flirt in the midst of debauchery, while David wonders if he’s on his way to his death. The couple is set to experience a very different night, one that will leave an impact on them forever.
Jessica Chastain and Ralph Fiennes are the only characters given any real dimension, so it’s not hard to see them as the highlights. Both are good, with Chastain especially having an edge, but Fiennes gets to see his character actually evolve. They have a nice acerbic chemistry with each other, but a little bit goes a long way. In addition to the aforementioned Christopher Abbott, Caleb Landry Jones, and Matt Smith, who are somewhat wasted, the cast also includes Alex Jennings, Marie-Josée Croze, Abbey Lee, Mourad Zaoui, and more.
Filmmaker John Michael McDonagh writes and directs The Forgiven with more indifference than you’d expect from him. Calvary and The Guard had passion, while this reminds me more of War on Everyone. McDonagh usually has a sneaky emotional element with his dark view of humanity, but that’s missing here. It’s just largely dark. While well made, it just never amounts to enough to warrant a recommendation. His critique of privilege is halfhearted, at best.
The Forgiven lives and dies on the performances from Jessica Chastain and Ralph Fiennes, but watching their bad behavior only goes so far. Especially knowing what John Michael McDonagh is capable of, this has to be labeled a disappointment. If you’re a fan of someone here, it works perhaps as a curiosity, but as little more, sadly.