The Movie Waffler New to VOD - THE FORGIVEN | The Movie Waffler


An alcoholic reluctantly throws himself at the mercy of the man whose son he killed.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: John Michael McDonagh

Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain, Matt Smith, Ismael Kanater, Caleb Landry Jones, Abbey Lee, Saïd Taghmaoui, Christopher Abbott

the forgiven poster

Writer/director John Michael McDonagh is known for a particularly ugly brand of misanthropy. In his previous films – the Irish set duo of The Guard and Calvary, and his truly obnoxious US debut War on Everyone – he appears to set out to attack authority figures like the police and the church, but ends up punching down, his movies filled with crude homophobic, racist and ableist gags. When I heard the premise of his latest, The Forgiven, I prepared for the worst. But while some of McDonagh's worst tendencies are still present, The Forgiven is easily his most mature work, elevated by one of Ralph Fiennes' best performances in many a year.

Adapted from a novel by Lawrence Osborne (which might go some way to explaining the leap in quality here compared to previous McDonagh works), The Forgiven sees Fiennes play David Henninger, a "highly functioning alcoholic" doctor who travels to Morocco with his younger wife, children's author Jo (Jessica Chastain), to attend a lavish party thrown by British toff Richard (Matt Smith) and his American lover Dally (Caleb Landry Jones). While driving to Richard's out of the way mansion in the desert, the drunk David hits and kills a young local boy who steps into the path of his car.

the forgiven review

The immediate followup is almost identical to the recent Polish drama Silent Land, with the local police happy to dismiss the event for fear of dissuading future tourists. Assuming he's off the hook, the seemingly unremorseful David sets about enjoying himself. But then the dead boy's father, Abdellah (Ismael Kanater), shows up. Intiially believing he might be able to pay him off, David is coerced into returning with Abdellah to his village to help with the boy's funeral. Unsure of whether he'll return in one piece, David sets off while Jo stays behind to begin a brief affair with a handsome American guest (Christopher Abbott).

McDonagh's film splits into two subplots at this point, one following David's journey towards an uncertain faith, the other displaying the decadence of those remaining at Richard's party. The latter often feels like a distraction, as McDonagh fails to provide any novel insights into the lives of the rich and famous. It's the second movie in a row in which McDonagh has used the image of two men sharing a bed as a means of signifying depravity, and the manner in which Richard's guests speak about non-white people and those less financially fortunate than themselves come off as the product of lazy screenwriting rather than any realistic dialogue. So rich westerners don’t care much for respecting the traditions of the places they choose to locate their parties? That's hardly a revelation, nor is it a trait exclusive to the wealthy (witness the behaviour of travelling football fans).

the forgiven review

Far more interesting is the David subplot, a morality play that's crudely fashioned by McDonagh but given texture by the wonderful performances of Fiennes, Kanater and Saïd Taghmaoui as an English speaking local whose laissez faire attitude to the whole thing provides some much needed comic relief. Initially finding David with a drink in his hand beside his boy's corpse, Abdellah has no respect for the Englishman and David does nothing to change this. Try as he might, David keeps digging his own potential grave by saying the wrong thing or being caught laughing at a joke in the grieving father's presence. But as it becomes clear that Abdellah possesses a degree of compassion and honour David long left behind, David begins to feel the guilt that should have struck him immediately upon killing the former's son. This isn't so much a story of a bad man becoming a good man, but rather of a bad man accepting that he's a bad man.

As with his previous films, McDonagh's attempt to critique the powerful inadvertently leads to him punching down. We're supposed to frown at how David initially speaks about Arabs, but the film itself plays into tired stereotypes, with close-ups of angry Arab men accompanied by ominous music of the type you might find in an Indiana Jones movie.

the forgiven review

While McDonagh's worst proclivities are still on display, avoiding his latest would do a grave disservice to Fiennes, Kanater and Taghmaoui, whose rescuing of the film from their director is almost conspiratorial. Few words are spoken between Fiennes and Kanater, but there's an indefinable chemistry between them as they portray two men broken by the same incident.

In its best moments, when the camera settles down to focus on these three men, The Forgiven suggests that there may well be a mature filmmaker inside McDonagh. Perhaps if a bunch of Arab men took him out to the desert for a few days he might return newly enlightened?

The Forgiven is on UK/ROI VOD now.

2022 movie reviews