They are all beautiful, exquisitely dressed and insipid foreigners who have wandered into the Moroccan desert to spend a weekend of debauchery in “The Forgiven”.
Regardless of their marital status, sexual orientation, or country of origin, these people are horrible without exception. There isn’t one redeemer in the group, none you’d want to spend time with, well maybe Christopher Abbott, because he’s the hardest to pin down, so the dire traits of him aren’t as pronounced. He also looks quite handsome in a tuxedo. It’s that kind of party, at least until they start making lines of coke on the coffee table.
Writer/director John Michael McDonagh wants us to feel contempt as he lampoons the racism and classism of wealthy Westerners who exploit the Middle East as an exotic destination. They don’t see the locals as human beings, as a deadly accident will reveal, and they don’t have much time for Moroccan sentiments or traditions. They are simply dipping a toe into this world and ignoring the damage they have left in their wake. And McDonagh, in adapting Lawrence Osborne’s 2012 novel, uses his direct dialogue as a cudgel as if his actions alone weren’t enough. There may not be much to these people, but they are constantly declaring their emptiness in the most articulate of ways.
“I like it here,” says Abbott as Tom Day, a financial analyst in New York. “It feels like a country where a useless man could be happy.” Or as a famous Moroccan novelist played by Imane El Mechrafi says: “People disappear here. they just disappear.”
But in the character of Ralph Fiennes, McDonagh presents the possibility of evolution and even redemption. By then, however, it may be too late.
Fiennes’s David and Jessica Chastain’s Jo are a miserably married couple who have traveled from London to visit an old friend of theirs: Richard (a mocking Matt Smith), who is renovating a sprawling villa four hours from Tangier with his American partner, one day. -drunk named Dally (Caleb Landry Jones). We can quickly tell that their marriage is fraying from their bored expressions and the way they discreetly bicker when David finishes a bottle of white wine at the hotel. There is no spark in this fight: he just feels like a habit. (This is a very different husband-and-wife dynamic from the one Fiennes and Chastain shared in “Coriolanus.”) So when they find themselves lost and confused on the long overnight drive to Richard’s remote estate, they accidentally run over an impoverished teenager who sells fossils on the side of the road, killing him instantly; the trauma will surely make that crack worse.
But first, David and Jo have a soiree to attend where they have to pretend everything is okay. Other guests include Abbey Lee as an Australian party girl who jumps into the pool in her sequined gown; Marie-Josee Croze as a sanctimonious French photographer who makes sweeping generalizations about Americans; and Alex Jennings as a late-arriving British lord with a group of pretty, much younger women in tow.
They are careless people, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, until the boy’s father shows up from his town to make David worry, at least. Ismael Kanater plays Abdellah in a performance that at first seems bravely calm and stoic, almost stereotypical, but eventually reveals a sadness and simmering rage. Abdellah insists that David return with him to his house to help bury the boy, named Driss, as is his custom. David’s immediate reaction reveals his intolerance: “For all I know, they could be fucking Isis.” But he finally relents, intending to leave overnight and begrudgingly pay this family for his trouble.
From here, McDonagh (brother of Martin McDonagh, the writer of “In Bruges” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”) alternates between David’s journey toward forgiveness and drunken antics in the village. As the guests exchange sly jokes between sips of their cocktails, and Jo enjoys a fun and sexy flirtation with Tom while her husband is away, David learns of his exposure to this family and begins to accept the error of his ways. .
However, one situation is as superficial as the other. There is very little to either of these characters, so the possibility that they could change due to this traumatic series of events seems unearned. Chastain is cool and glamorous as Jo, who had the foresight to bring multiple pairs of designer sunglasses for this weekend jaunt to the middle of nowhere. And having worked with the likes of Aaron Sorkin, Chastain clearly knows how to handle this kind of muscular dialogue. But beyond her impeccable appearance and the fact that she was the author of children’s books, we know nothing about her. There are no stakes when it becomes clear that Jo’s whole life is about to change; she is more of a passing curiosity, like her flirtation with Tom.
McDonagh’s film is well-crafted throughout, but ultimately has nothing new or insightful to say about the ugliness of white privilege. It’s like attending a weekend bacchanal and forgetting what happened once Monday morning arrives, or maybe not wanting to remember.
Now playing in theaters.