There’s often a tremendous gap between the rich and the poor, and the lack of acknowledgment of that disparity can serve to foster resentment. Many people who have plenty tend to treat those who have little as beneath them, as if hiring them is a gift rather than a contract and they should be expected to take whatever abuse because they are lucky to have a job. Karma can be quite cunning, and John Michael McDonagh’s latest film, The Forgiven, looks at what happens when someone gives no thought to the consequences of their actions and the less privileged take notice.
The action begins at night in the middle of the Moroccan desert when, on their way to a lavish weekend thrown by Richard (Matt Smith) and Dally (Caleb Landry Jones), David (Ralph Fiennes) and Jo (Jessica Chastain) hit a local boy when he steps out in front of their car. Once they arrive late to the party, they settle into the excess around them. Soon after, the father of the dead boy shows up insisting that David come back with them to bury his son. Feeling that he has no other option, David reluctantly agrees and Jo stays behind, where she becomes close with another visiting American, Tom (Christopher Abbott).
The elitism present in this group is immediately evident just by the way in which they talk about those who do not fit in with them. They refer constantly to the locals as Arabs, said with a dismissive tone, and speak freely in front of the men who essentially work as servants for them as if they are not there, of worse, as if them hearing the horrible things they are saying doesn’t matter. David, an admitted alcoholic, shirks blame for the accident and expresses no remorse about having killed someone since that person’s life, he believes, mattered far less than his own.
McDonagh is a filmmaker known for his clever blending of comedy and dark drama, most evident in his first feature, The Guard. With this film, he has selected actors who know how to dial up their characters’ personalities and portray an egotistical comfort that inherently involves the belittlement of others. David is outright pompous and impolite, while Jo has a subtler bite, feigning kindness andd graciousness but actually sitting in just as much judgment of the people around her. Tom is more of an enigma, though he too lives within a sphere where want can always be satisfied right away due to considerable means.
There is a foreboding theme to this film that runs throughout it, even in its most comical moments, and the score by Lorne Balfe assists that by ensuring that the audial tension stays high. The desert is a vast landscape with unknown proportions where danger could be lurking around any corner, but the fact that the family of the boy David has killed knows who he is and exactly where to find him is even more frightening than any unseen threat. The clothes that David wears when he leaves for his precarious trip are the best indication of his failure to connect with the reality of his situation, intent on continuing to not accept any responsibility and stoop to the level of acknowledging the validity of anyone else’s circumstance.
This cast is more than competent, with Fiennes, who previously teamed with McDonagh’s brother Martin in In Bruges, a terrific choice to play the irritable and generally impatient David. Among the standouts are Smith as the more active and organized of the two hosts, chewing scenery in every conversation, and Abbey Lee in a small role as a partygoer whose trip is nearly as wild as David’s if only for the fact that she’s so drunk the entire time that she never know’s what going on. Like another McDonagh film, Calvary, The Forgiven is a thoroughly engrossing film that starts off from a very interesting point and becomes slightly less involving as it goes on, reaching an end that isn’t overly satisfying. For the discomfort, cinematic quality, and the social commentary, the trip is still with it.
The Forgiven makes its US premiere in the Spotlight Narrative section at the 2022 Tribeca Festival and will be released theatrically on Friday, July 1st.