The opening credits are barely done in John Michael McDonagh’s caustic morality tale The Forgiven when its main characters have run over and killed an Arab boy while driving through the Moroccan desert. As happens in nearly any film when otherwise law-abiding people cause death, they take several unintelligent and indefensible actions. What gives the story some of its scorpion sting, though, is that the party they are on their way to is filled with people who are for the most part far worse.
This seems hard to imagine. The driving couple, David (Ralph Fiennes) and Jo (Jessica Chastain), are a nightmarish pair who can barely see past their own privilege to stop complaining. “Very picturesque, I suppose, in a banal sort of way,” David notes while looking at a vast desert vista from atop a horse. He then lists the gay Westerners who famously came to Morocco since Edwardian times (Gide, Ginsberg, Burroughs), “primarily to bugger little Arab boys.” The flippancy of the remark, coming just the morning after his drunk driving killed an Arab boy, is hard to stomach but is placed there not just for discomfort. Swaddled in and bored by comfort, the Europeans seem to appreciate nothing. Until one of them has something to lose.
The party is being thrown by David’s chum Dickie (Matt Smith), a glamorously louche Brit afflicted by wealth and a desire to spend it all at his restored palace in the Atlas Mountains. The other guests make up a Eurotrash sampler dish: party girls in ridiculous dresses, muscle boys, poor artists invited for flavor, and the odd slumming aristocrat. While they indulge in fireworks, lavish banquets, flowing champagne and cocaine, and theme nights concocted by Dickie’s oleaginous boyfriend Dally (Caleb Landry Jones), David’s crime won’t let him rest. In part, this is because he and Jo brought the boy’s body in their car to Dickie’s palace, where it lays in the garage next to the gleaming sports cars.
When Abdellah (Ismael Kanater, deploying an icily compelling hauteur), the father of the dead boy, comes to the palace to retrieve the body, he asks David to return with him to their village for the burial. At that moment, The Forgiven splits into two narratives. One follows David’s sojourn into the desert, from which an almost comical number of people at Dickie’s palace (including the Moroccan servants, to whom the Berber nomads are almost as foreign as the Europeans) expect him not to return alive. The other stays with the sybaritic revelers, who camp and preen and snipe while Jo, previously tightly wound and snapping at David’s trollish comments, unfurls and starts partaking of what is on offer. Nobody spends much time thinking about the dead boy or David’s potential death. There is brunch to be had, cocaine and cocktails to be ingested, and gossip to be bandied about even while the servants stare daggers at the “infidels”.
What happens in both stories is predictable and yet compelling, due largely to the stark dialogue and McDonagh’s anti-romantic viewpoint. David, once detached from his cold-blooded compatriots and the rivers of booze (“I always thought the ‘high-functioning’ part should cancel out the ‘alcoholic’ part,” he quips) and stuck in the parched desert, comes to a something of a moral reckoning about himself. Jo, surrounded for once by people at least pretending to enjoy themselves, takes to it happily. David discovers the pitiless poverty of the Berbers, mining for fossils they can sell to European collectors like an absurdist colonialist treasure hunt. Jo indulges in a witty flirtation with Tom (Christopher Abbott), a literary-minded American finance dude with bedroom eyes and just enough self-loathing to ensure he will not hang around too long. Ultimately, neither David nor Jo have anywhere to hide.
There is a simple tale of sin and redemption to be located here. David is primed for a revelation, given how Fiennes transitions from snarling reactionary (“What a nice little fascist you’ve become,” Jo sighs after one of his more racially offensive remarks) to the somewhat soulful traveler who might have been buried there all along; Fiennes did play Lawrence of Arabia some years back so has an idea of how to find himself in the dunes. The screenplay, which McDonagh adapted from the 2013 Lawrence Osborne novel, goes a bit too far down that road, loading up the Berber characters with symbolically meaningful dialogue that feels primed more for David’s education than communication.
But for the most part, The Forgiven nimbly dodges such simplicities. It astringently comments on the colonialist arrogance and wastefulness of the party guests—just when one is thinking about sympathizing with Jo, she starts to play ugly power games with Hamid (Mourad Zaoui), Dickie’s pained-looking Moroccan butler. At the same time, it side-steps romanticized notions of the Arabs as being content with the scraps thrown their way and reveals some of the party guests as highly aware of the role they are playing.
Certainly not laugh-out-loud funny as McDonagh’s The Guard (2011) nor harrowing as Calvary (2014), The Forgiven will not be one of his most memorable works. But its crisply snapping dialogue, slow-burn tensions, crackles of violence, and balancing of cynicism with world-weary outrage add up to a tart and unexpectedly mournful drama about the wages of sin.