David (Ralph Fiennes) and Jo (Jessica Chastain) are on their way to a party in the Moroccan desert, and they are running late—though they give the impression of people who would be sniping at each other regardless of timing. “I hate to say…” starts David, a self-admitted “high-functioning alcoholic,” and Jo cuts him off: “No, you don’t.” She’s probably right. But their weary animosity towards each other gets a jolt when they hit a young man who jumps out in front of their car, killing him in the nighttime Sahara.
John Michael McDonagh’s The Forgiven is adapted from a Lawrence Osborne novel, but it takes place in a sort of purgatory that’s often depicted on stage. David and Jo, not knowing what else to do, bring the body with them to the party, thrown by their friend Richard (Matt Smith) and his leering partner Dally (Caleb Landry Jones). In touch with some of the locals in Richard’s employ, David eventually agrees to be escorted to the young man’s home and family, where he will return the body, attend the funeral, offer them some blood money and meet with the boy’s father Abdellah (Ismael Kanater). He approaches this as if filling out a stack of necessary but tedious paperwork. Jo, meanwhile, stays at the party and flirts with Tom (Christopher Abbott), a fellow guest.
McDonagh holds his central couple in a combination of contempt and fascination. At first, whatever faintly redeemable qualities they might possess seem tied up in their sardonic willingness to stay true to their privileged selves—or maybe they just seem comparably more likable because they’re played by charismatic stars. (This is a great advantage to appearing in a movie with Caleb Landry Jones, who has never met a character he couldn’t play as a mumbly, reptilian creep.) Their affectations—his bitter excuse for wise drollery; her arch, contained disgust—make for a convincingly clashed couple. But as David’s journey extends, he starts to seem capable of some kind of self-reflection, especially in his scenes with Abdellah. Jo, for her part, starts to look capable of at least momentary satisfaction.
Much of The Forgiven takes place in rarified air in a way McDonagh’s other movies do not. His two most famous films, violent buddy comedy The Guard and reflective dramedy Calvary, have Brendan Gleeson respectively playing a cop and a priest grappling with moral choices. The (white) characters in The Forgiven are people of such means that their lives, including their jaunting through the Sahara to attend an overnight party with seemingly little motivation, appear vaguely dreamlike. Based on McDonagh’s past work, he seems more likely to make a movie that would follow the driver (Said Taghmaoui) on David’s attempted mission of contrition—or at least one that gives David less faux-erudition and more bluster. (None of these characters are exactly a Brendan Gleeson type, but David and Jo perhaps least of all.)
None of this is exactly a problem with The Forgiven; it all indicates McDonagh’s desire to stretch out of his black-comic comfort zone. Yet the movie doesn’t breathe with the same life as his collaborations with Gleeson. In sidelong ways, the new movie resembles The Darjeeling Limited (privileged white people attending an overseas funeral), A Bigger Splash (Ralph Fiennes making a mess on vacation) and In Bruges (Fiennes, doomy tourism and the work of McDonagh’s Oscar-winning brother Martin), without being as memorable as any of them. Good as Fiennes and Chastain are, their incremental changes are meted out slowly over the course of two hours. Pops of color in their outfits (pink for Fiennes, green for Chastain) set against the desert backdrop make more of an impression than the dialogue—surprising, from such a witty writer. The Morocco-getaway languor of Chastain’s half of the story both breaks the tension and slackens the pace.
McDonagh certainly has the courage of his convictions; he arrives at an ending that refuses to settle for soft, squishy lessons. It’s so distinctive, in fact, that it threatens to overshadow the rest of the movie, making it feel more winding and circuitous than it really is. It’s telling that The Forgiven has the shape of a long, dark night of the soul, while actually taking place over several days.
Director: John Michael McDonagh
Writer: John Michael McDonagh
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Jessica Chastain, Christopher Abbott, Ismael Kanater, Matt Smith, Caleb Landry Jones, Said Taghmaoui
Release Date: July 1, 2022
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.