John Michael McDonagh’s “The Forgiven” walks the ever-fine line between artful examination and utter monotony. Adapting Lawrence Osborne’s novel, McDonagh’s film takes place over one weekend in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco and skewers the privilege of the wealthy and white.
David (Ralph Fiennes) and Jo (Jessica Chastain) are traveling to a party taking place in the Moroccan desert. Late, lost, and frustrated, the two seem to already be at odds with one another.
David is, as his character admits a high-functioning alcoholic and shows hostility towards his wife, who is even less tolerant of her husband’s rationalizations as she is of his self-serving, snooty and bigoted attitudes.
The portrayal of David would first seem to be overwritten (as he is immediately presented spewing racist bile towards the Muslim community and its peoples), but today’s world (especially in America) has revealed the pure inhumanity that has infested Western culture; to be fair, a “culture” long ago built on the oppression of people of color. There’s are too many like David living amongst us.
On this dark night in the desert and with a drunk David behind the wheel, they hit a young Moroccan man with their car, killing him.
Finding this more annoyance than tragedy (they must get to the party) the two bring the body with them to the soirée thrown by their friend Richard (a dull Matt Smith) and his strange partner Dally (an over-acting Caleb Landry Jones).
The film is obvious as we witness the entitled Westerners abusing the beautiful lands of the Middle East and disrespecting the traditions of the Moroccans, who they certainly do not see as equals. One could accuse the elites in this picture of seeing their hosts as less than human. Lest the privileged whites forget, they will only be here for a time while the Moroccans live and die here. The imprints Westerners leave behind will further imbue the already (and deservedly) ugly reputation of whites.
The police do come and after a half-hearted investigation, the finding is accidental death. All is still not well when the deceased’s father, Abdellah (Ismael Kanater) comes to claim the body, who requests David’s presence at the funeral. David reluctantly agrees and his journey is where the film finds its potency.
As entitled whites will do, most everyone shrugs it all off and the party continues. Jo welcomes the flirtations from an American named Tom (Christopher Abbott) and encourages more. There is no concern for this poor young man who has been killed in a tragic accident. What would shake a normal person’s soul, barely creases the suits and dresses of this self-obsessed group.
While the main actors are game (Fiennes and Chastain haven’t been this good in quite a while), the film isn’t as sharply pointed as it could be due to caricatures. The supporting cast aren’t really people, instead they propel the film’s themes.
Larry Smith’s lens moves through the gross display of privilege as partygoers drink, flirt, do cocaine, and talk down to the staff, who are forced to listen as the white elite badmouth their culture and religion without the slightest crumb of sensitivity.
There is strong Buñuel and Antonioni- esque ridicule to be mined from this group of haves, but McDonagh keeps everyone (except David and Jo) at too much of a distance. In his films “The Guard” and “Calvary,” the director had a tight grip on character and situation, getting to the core of the humor and bite found within each story. Here, he plays loose with the supporting cast and focus is impacted.
This is not to say “The Forgiven” is a forgettable film. It has some good moments, more than a few humorous lines, and Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain really dig in deep. Chastain’s work here far outshines her over-praised performance in last year’s “The Eyes of Tammy Faye.”
It is the screenplay that falters in its attempt to say something pointed about its subject matter. A film denouncing white privilege needs a strong backbone and a sharp tongue. The film has neither, but finds humanity in David as he walks a path to redemption.
Not punchy enough and superficial “The Forgiven” is a half-recommend. See it for the expert lead performances and scattered witty dialogue. For a profound film with something new to say about class structure and racism, look elsewhere.