Released 2022. Director: John Michael McDonagh
IT'S NOT OFTEN THAT FILMMAKERS WORK SO HARD TO MAKE YOU DISLIKE, even loath, their characters. Whether that’s their intention here, I’d bet by the end you have no love for them.
The Forgiven takes place in Morocco. Posh couple David and Jo are having one of those holidays where they spend as much time complaining as they do reminding each other the spark has gone out of their marriage. Driving in the night to a weekend-long party hosted by their friend Richard hours away in the mountains, the bristling couple start to argue, David is driving too fast and he’s had a few drinks. When suddenly they catch sight of a person in the middle of the road it’s too late, they have hit and killed a teenage boy.
Shaken and not knowing what else to do, David and Jo arrive at Richard’s grand villa, with a dead body in the backseat. Meanwhile, the party goes on, a dead local is but a minor inconvenience, surely not as shocking as running out of wine. Later that night, the father of the dead boy arrives to claim his body and in a moment of supreme bad timing and utter display of gross insensitivity, they let off a barrage of fireworks, exploding over the sky and lighting up the land as if to celebrate his death.
What the accident brings out in the response of those involved and on the periphery is the gist of the story. There’s little that’s new or subtle in director John Michael McDonagh’s deliberate set up (from a novel by Lawrence Osborne) to contrast two polar opposites in lifestyle and attitude.
This is a land of tradition and conservative values, of small means where the poor dig up fossils to sell as souvenirs to tourists. This is also the spot where the rich and spoiled have gathered for a weekend of debauchery. Cushioned in great wealth on a barren landscape, a group of privileged First World bigots flaunt their ostentatious indulgence in sex, drugs and booze. The guests complain of desert heat as if it’s a chore and hassle to party. The situation smacks of colonialism as local servants in uniform wait on their lordship hand and foot. The paymasters brandish their superiority, calling their hired help “our little Moroccan friends,” who hide their disdain to keep their job. In this land of arid desert where water is scarce, perhaps nothing is more outrageous than seeing someone frolicking in a private swimming pool.
The Forgiven gives the impression of a couple’s therapy in an unfamiliar surroundings, physical and cultural. Then it veers towards a thriller when the boy’s father Abdellah insists that David should go with him and his men back to their village for the burial. There are murmurs that these stern men with weapons could be linked to terrorists, even the servants think they will mutilate the Westerner as revenge. David believes he will be robbed, so he packs some money hoping it might save him, but he doesn’t feel sorry for the boy’s death.
The part that features David going through days of uncertainty, basically being taken hostage, is the strongest part of a movie that suffers from a sluggish pacing, unsure of whether to be a thriller or a moralistic critique. He’s an outsider partaking in an unnerving experience that’s part vengeance, part mourning and part redemption. He has a knife to his neck, so to speak, and he doesn’t know if he’ll come out of this alive.
McDonagh juxtaposes David’s journey to atonement with the indifference and callousness of his wealthy mates soaking up the never-ending happy hour. One of the guests, Tom, makes no pretence hitting on Jo whilst Jo herself never for a second wonders if David is alright when there’s a man here who desires her. She is absolutely basking in the freedom in the absence of her husband. For all they know, David could be dead, but really, no one seems concerned.
Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain deliver performances expected of their calibre. Chastain has less to do but Fiennes adds a touch of depth to his character when he finally understands the consequences of his actions and accepts culpability. The character with the most empathy is the quietly grieving and enraged father Abdellah, played by Ismael Kanater, who controls his emotions behind an intimidating and inscrutable exterior. The cast at the bacchanal, including Matt Smith, Caleb Landry Jones and Alex Jennings, do well in projecting a hedonistic extravagance. Their sense of Western entitlement is superbly brought forth in a totally off-putting manner.
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