There’s an unusual, heady air about writer-director John Michael Mcdonagh’s latest and swankiest movie, The Forgiven, a misguided combination of crime thriller, dark comedy and furry reunion flick. it’s a strange watch, unsure of itself at times, enormously self-assured at others, but never less than curiously compelling, a mostly compelling return after 2016’s disappointing war against all.
Like his younger brother Martin, Mcdonagh’s writing is often at its best when it’s at its most deceptively simple: two characters complaining and criticizing each other, dialogue that quickly turns from delicate cut to deep wound. In his adaptation of Lawrence Osborne’s acclaimed novel, his partner is a married couple: a Briton and an American in Morocco, bored with each other and his surroundings. David (Ralph Fiennes) is an insufferable alcoholic, who makes horrible and bigoted comments about minorities, much to the annoyance of his youngest wife, Jo (Jessica Chastain), who accompanies him on the trip but barely wakes up. They head to the desert for a weekend party at a swanky estate owned by an eccentric gay couple (in top form, Matt Smith and Caleb Landry Jones). but there is an accident on the way: david hits and kills a local boy with his car. It was dark but David had been drinking and soon the party is interrupted by a dead body and confusion over what to do with it.
While another movie would fret over the darkness of that dilemma, Osborne and Mcdonagh make the refreshing decision to move forward with believable speed, so that the authorities will be called and the consequences addressed. leads to a split, with david and jo spending most of the movie apart as david must return to the dead boy’s family home and any possible revenge that may follow as jo drunkenly loafs around the extravagant house, giving welcome to respite. it’s a short pity as before they’re ripped apart it’s fun to watch them expertly shred each other, that familiar back-and-forth couple banter that has kept the same rat-tat groove that used to be flirtatious but has soured into a vivid disgust. It’s a dynamic that Jo then replicates in part with a fellow guest (Christopher Abbott), whom he flirts with shamelessly, closer to his age and devoid of David’s more twisted qualities, if not entirely because that would be boring. David’s quest is escapist in a far less pleasant way, but it does insist on an important lesson in humility, a perspective he’d been missing, and a belated understanding of one’s place in the world for someone so dangerously unleashed.
mcdonagh’s random movie is clearly an adaptation of a much more expansive and detailed novel (themes and supporting characters come and go quickly, sometimes frustratingly) and we end up wanting more rather than less (one wonders what a limited series would have looked like). the conflict between libertine westerners who turn a remote desert estate into a garishly lit orgy of strong cocktails and sexual energy (abbey lee’s drunken party girl is hilarious) and the locals who quietly work for them or watch with disdain from Far spiky but pleasantly understated, it’s an accepted tension after 9/11 that finally places the former in the realm of evil, even if some of them wouldn’t see their dismissive and disrespectful behavior as cruelly ostentatious. there’s a wonderfully gross fireworks scene, unintentionally timed for maximum awkwardness, that plays brilliantly, as does a quick and shocking moment of an employee sadly throwing away an entire basket of pastries after breakfast.
Chastain, a talented but too often down-and-out actor, is on fire here, sneaking out with a drink in hand and a line of coke to inhale, flirting and joking his weekend away, letting you have some real fun . for once instead of the misery he usually carries. she has amazingly fresh and sexy chemistry with abbott (even if some of her lines could use an added twist) and equally easy-to-buy chemistry with fiennes, they both manage to show a kind of resigned love between their barbs (sometimes, she’s almost as insensitive as he). fiennes is an effectively hateful version of a guy who often appears in the work of both mcdonagh brothers, rude and offensive, oscillating between islamophobia and homophobia within the sip of a dirty martini, but his grossness is met with a variety of deserved, from local boys. throwing rocks at his head after a nasty tirade to something much darker.
As the final act draws near, what’s forgiven may, frustratingly, not be the sum of its many parts. while the wild tonal shift between drunken excess and empty pain can be well balanced and contrasted, at other times it gives the film a lingering unevenness, which doesn’t help a fairly repetitive and simple score that intrudes on certain scenes. and steals the emotion. the strange rudimentary indefinability of the film is both its blessing and its curse. we are left with pieces, interesting on their own and sometimes together, but not enough to complete the puzzle.
the fordoned was screened at the toronto film festival and opened in the uk on september 2nd.