The Forgiven doesn’t have any substance or style to elevate its tired tale of how rich people suck.
“Rich people behaving badly” has become such an omnipresent cinematic trope in recent years that it could practically become its own subgenre, even as various filmmakers have quite explicitly filtered it through everything from comedy (A Bigger Splash) to murder-mystery (Knives Out) to horror (Ready or Not). Writer-director John Michael McDonagh along that particular path with The Forgiven, a very serious treatise on class warfare and white privilege that also attempts to be a sharp-tongued, rollicking satire of such, to predictably mixed results. McDonagh is certainly no stranger to high-wire tonal balancing acts, having expertly navigated similarly treacherous terrain with 2011’s The Guard and 2014’s Calvary. But if 2016’s godawful, pitch-black comedy War on Everyone seemed to have permanently fried the filmmaker’s astute capabilities, at least The Forgiven isn’t nearly as abhorrent as that train wreck.
Based on the 2012 best-selling novel by Lawrence Osborne, Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain star as David and Jo Henninger, a wealthy English couple making their way across the Sahara Desert to attend an extravagant party in the mountains of Morocco thrown by bougie friend Richard Galloway (Matt Smith) and his white-trash American lover, Dally (Caleb Landry Jones). David and Jo barely talk to one another, and when they do, it’s nothing but barbed insults spoken in a flat monotone that almost succeeds in disguising the bile that coats every syllable. As is established from the film’s opening moments, David is a high-functioning alcoholic for whom every act is accompanied by a stiff drink. So It’s not the least bit surprising when, while lost on the labyrinthine roads of the Sahara, David runs over and kills a teenage Muslim boy by the name of Driss (Omar Ghazaoui), who was out late attempting to sell fossils unearthed from the desert — or so his best friend claims. Local police are quick to label the tragedy an accident after a bribe or two, but Driss’ father, Abdellah (Ismael Kanater), is not swayed so easily. He soon arrives at the palatial estate, insisting that David travel hours away to his small village to assist in the burial and gain a better understanding of the life that was stolen from him. David agrees with this, a rather remarkable development in itself, but because his so-called friends and his wife don’t really like him, they go along with the charade that he will be safe despite believing he is quite likely to be murdered. And so the majority of The Forgiven follows two separate storylines, that of David atoning for his sins and learning the particular shape of his reprehensibility, while Jo snorts mountains of cocaine and fucks a smarmy financial consultant (Christopher Abbott).
McDonagh seems to be under the impression that this abundant cross-cutting is all that is needed to create biting social satire. You see, the initially grief-stricken Jo actually proves to be worse than her husband, while David finally takes responsibility for his cowardly actions. Isn’t that ironic? As is to be expected from a writer who has proven as cutting as McDonagh, there are some deliciously cruel lines that prove momentarily potent, but they never quite feel organic to the material, seeming to exist solely to distract the viewer from the utter lack of substance on display. Indeed, excise the half-assed social commentary and what you are left with is a sun-drenched noir that, while gorgeous to look at — courtesy of cinematographer Larry Smith — provides little in the way of intrigue or thrills. The film’s ending is obvious, and the journey getting there is borderline interminable thanks to truly sluggish pacing, especially in the film’s back-half. The performances are certainly pitched to do the heavy lifting here, with Kanater the MVP as the grieving and vengeance-minded father, along with Said Taghmaoui as his trusted friend and companion with whom David bonds. Fiennes is dependably, well, fine, while Chastain wears a bunch of gorgeous and expensive clothes and throws champagne glasses at walls before passionately making love with a stranger, becoming even more aroused once she notices that a servant is watching. How filthy! The film also has a bit of an ill-conceived upstairs/downstairs subplot going on with the various individuals employed by Richard, but they really only exist to offer up obvious commentary about the awfulness of their guests, which is accurate but not exactly stimulating or enlightening. And it’s this that ultimately proves to be The Forgiven‘s biggest sin: McDonagh’s misguided belief that his film is delivering anything of substance, or telling its tale in a way that is even remotely clever, unless one counts having the end credits play at the beginning of the film as novel. As it turns out, rich people suck. News at 11.