Cynical American finance guys and the alumni of elite British private schools are easy comedic targets. The jokes write themselves: their sordid relationship dynamics, obnoxious cocaine-fuelled conversations, absurd disconnection from reality and jarring decadence. John Michael McDonagh’s drama The Forgiven grips tightly onto this comedic genre and squeezes it for all it’s worth. And then keeps squeezing.
Set in a lavishly decorated Moroccan villa owned by the aimlessly wealthy Richard Galloway (Matt Smith) and his objectionable American paramour Dally (Caleb Landry Jones), the filmography is lush and vivid, lingering on tapestries and oases. Yet despite the scenery, at some point in the movie’s almost two hour run time, the sheer despicability of the characters ceases to be funny or incisive and ends up simply wearing on your soul. (Unless you are my boyfriend, in which case you consider this experience ‘dark It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’).
The film follows troubled couple Jo and David Henninger (Jessica Chastain and Ralph Fiennes) as they travel to the villa’s extravagant weekend-long housewarming. David — a drawling high-functioning alcoholic — is a grumbling, sardonic presence, brimming with disdain for the locals. Jo is a beautiful but self-professedly useless former children’s books author whose affection for David seems to have reached its expiration date.
Night falls as David speeds through the Moroccan desert (not without the influence of a few drinks). The couple get lost, argue, and fatally hit a local fossil-seller, Driss (Omar Ghazaoui) who steps out in front of the car to induce them to stop and buy a fossil.
They arrive at the party bloodied and bearing a corpse. Jo is traumatised; David, silent and bitter. The police accept that the death was an accident, to the relief of trouble-averse Richard and Dally.
Driss’ father, Abdellah (a moving performance from Ismael Kanater), arrives at the villa gates the next morning, distinctly less satisfied by the account of his only son’s death. He induces David to travel with him back to his home to give Driss a proper burial.
The rest of the film interperses sweeping shots of their battered Jeep travelling through the desert with the excesses occurring back at the villa. While David is forced to confront the magnitude of his actions and his dismissiveness towards Driss’ life, Jo swaps brainless flirtations with the charming but hollow Finance Guy Christopher Abbott (Tom Day). As David grapples with atonement, Jo snorts fat lines of coke from a coffee table and gets into absurd arguments about imperialism with a French filmmaker.
Fiennes and Kanater are compelling in their half of the narrative. The grief and anger are quiet and intense; all of David’s very-gradually-bending character arc is represented honestly.
Unfortunately, Chastain is not given the same latitude, being essentially confined to Looking Hot, Dressing Well and Being Immoral.
Mourad Zaoui’s Hamid, the mistreated butler, overlooks the hedonism with distaste, coining a series of pithy new idioms to describe his dislikable charges. “You should get Twitter,” says one of his fellow servants. By the end of the party, the audience hates the revellers almost as much as Hamid does, having borne witness to an onslaught of racism, elitism and outright idiocy.
In theory, forcing the audience to sit through this mire of indecency might have some value — perhaps the attendant discomfort and dislike could be worthwhile. In reality, however, the film’s payoff falls short. That the ultra-rich treat their underlings terribly, express their bigotry with abandon, and cheat on their spouses is not quite the insight the film seems to think it is.