In a more just world, the opening of The Forgiven this weekend would be bigger news. The film comes from John Michael McDonagh (The Guard, War On Everyone, Calvary) — not to be confused with his younger brother, Martin, who did In Bruges but also Three Billboards — and stars an A-list cast that includes Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain, Christopher Abbott, and Matt Smith. You’d have a hard time squeezing more awards and acclaim into its pedigree, but it’s not a Minion or a Thor, so you probably haven’t heard about it.
That’s a shame because The Forgiven is the rare adult drama that doesn’t feel like a museum piece. It lives and breathes, it teases and provokes, the kind of movie that seems designed to be discussed and fought over — in a world where adults might still do such things. John Michael McDonagh has always had an acid pen and a facility for quippy dialogue, but adapting here from Lawrence Osborne’s 2012 novel, it feels like McDonagh also has a solid narrative framework undergirding all that cleverness. And this is a filmmaker who perhaps could’ve benefited from more girding in movies past.
Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain play David and Jo Henninger, two rich assholes on their way to a Moroccan estate for a party thrown by two other rich assholes, Richard and Dally (Matt Smith and Caleb Landry Jones). David and Jo bicker their way through the storybook landscape, immune to its rugged beauty — she the hectoring wife, he the checked-out husband. At one point she calls him a “functioning alcoholic,” to which he responds “I’ve always wondered, shouldn’t the ‘functioning’ part cancel out the second part?”
It’s a comment I imagine McDonagh had in his notebook for some time. Their sniping seems to reach a fever pitch on a darkened desert road when David plows over a Moroccan teenager trying to get them to stop and buy some fossils.
Rich jerks mowing down impoverished locals in the roadway has been a handy inciting event in class fiction for some time now (not to mention reality), from Bonfire Of The Vanities to White Tiger, but if The Forgiven‘s skeleton feels familiar, the meat of it is unique unto itself. There’s the picturesque setting, this louche party in an outpost of privilege, the blasé Orientalism of all the guests, the resentful local household staff. If we were writing a highfalutin thesis, we could say The Forgiven is about “colonialism and the moral rot of the privileged classes.” But as with Succession, I suspect the draw is more the exotic settings, the absurd situations, the cleverly wicked characters, and the lack of moralizing. Who doesn’t enjoy venal characters behaving badly? I have to imagine The Forgiven is doing a lot of things Death On The Nile wanted to, without the corny genre trappings.
David, who is either the worst kind of rich old white guy or the most brutally honest kind, who alienates his peers by speaking plainly about the things they tend to cloister behind euphemisms and platitudes, eventually gets drawn into the family, legal, and cultural drama that naturally results from killing a boy in a foreign country — and a cultural minority boy in a foreign country at that. The Forgiven is a comedy of manners about a manslaughter.
Meanwhile, his wife Jo tries to enjoy the party, having a sort of holiday from her marriage as a way to rediscover her individuality while carrying on a flirtation with a finance guy dilettante played by Christopher Abbott. They have nice chemistry, and McDonagh excels at banter, always riding that line between clevered-up realism and A List Of Funny Things I Had In My Notebook That I Shoehorned Into A Script. Jessica Chastain is so much more fun when she’s not trapped in Aaron Sorkin competence porn mode. Much more fun to hear her coo “what’s the point of a prostitute who doesn’t do anal?”
These people are wicked partly because they’re emblematic of societal ills, sure, but mostly because they’re just bored. The Forgiven feels a little like Bret Easton Ellis meets Curb Your Enthusiasm. Credit to McDonagh for noticing the parallels.
The whole movie is a bit like that — while it certainly has a moral center, it’s refreshingly un-didactic, willing to let its characters be ethically complex without stapling them to a facile allegory. They’re shitty because we’re all shitty in our own special ways. The dead boy is from a tribe of Berber nomads, who eke out a living pulling fossils from the desert and selling them to westerners. “We don’t know why you want them, all we know is you’re willing to pay money for them,” explains one of their emissaries, played by the once again solid Saïd Taghmaoui.
The potential allusions here are obvious, from fossil fuels to anyone making a precarious living from a diminishing resource. The skill of McDonagh (or maybe Osborne’s novel, which I haven’t read) is to invite the audience to make those allusions rather than forcing one read onto us. Discussing such things used to be the fun part of collectively experiencing art, before it became a sort of scavenger hunt for previously introduced characters.
The Forgiven is about — and this won’t shock you if you’ve seen Calvary — guilt. How much guilt we owe personally for the criminal society we didn’t ask to be born into but nonetheless benefited from, and which forms of penance are constructive and which are just masturbatory rationalization. Few actors are better at this dance, between genuine introspection and the angry rejection of it, than Ralph Fiennes. This dance itself is something of a McDonagh specialty (both brothers, really) and if there was a lifetime achievement Oscar for best acting in McDonagh brothers’ films, Fiennes’ work here and in In Bruges would make him a lock. Aside from being excellent at shouting the word “cunt,” he’s authentically aristocratic (his birth name is Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes) but also seems to genuinely enjoy necking the occasional pint of cheap lager (Wes Anderson has also exploited this characteristic, in less Anglocentric ways).
Both McDonagh and Osborne feel like they’re working through some things with this story. Fiennes has the perfect face to express them; sometimes wordlessly, other times vulgarly. Mostly, The Forgiven is the kind of naughty, knotty crowd-pleaser that used to dominate the cultural conversation, but now seems like a tribute act. Too bad. I think lots of people enjoy this kind of entertainment, when given half a chance.