An impeccably cast Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain headline John Michael McDonagh’s morally debaucherous psycho-drama The Forgiven, screening as part of TIFF 2021.
David (Fiennes) and Jo (Chastain) are a bickering, bored couple veering towards divorce as they head for a booze-fueled weekend in the Moroccan desert. En route to their eccentric hosts’ (Matt Smith and Caleb Landry Jones) abode, David hits and kills a young Arab boy on the side of the road. More of an inconvenience than a tragedy for the couple, they load the body in the back of the car and proceed to the party. When David is eventually summoned into the desert as penance for killing the boy, Jo is left behind to let her hair down at the hedonistic festivities, further driving a wedge into their marriage.
At once a class satire and engaging thriller, the actors dive into their roles with aplomb. No one could have imbued these characters the way Fiennes and Chastain do. In what feels like a meaner version of his character in A Bigger Splash, this is top-tier Fiennes – callous, detached, and without remorse. Though Chastain and Fiennes spend the majority of the film apart, it’s no surprise that filmmaker McDonagh’s screenplay is at its best when it involves acid-tongued bickering and snipping at one another.
Not to be outdone is the supporting cast of Christopher Abbott as a wealthy New Yorker whose sexual chemistry with Chastain is off the charts, and the oddly-mismatched but ultimately compelling coupling of Smith and Landry Jones as the party hosts. The one true shame of The Forgiven may be that we don’t get to spend as much time exploring these characters as Lawrence Osborne does in his novel. There is such a wealth of material and characters here, it almost makes one wish that the themes here had been more deeply explored in a limited series. In a rare instance of wanting more from The Forgiven, additional screen time could have been given to some of the party’s guests (like drunken party girl Abbey Lee), the dead boy’s father (Ismael Kanater) and right-hand man Anouar (Saïd Taghmaoui) as well as the Moroccan house staff at the party, notably butler Hamid (Mourad Zaoui).
Filmed on location in Morocco just at the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, The Forgiven very much feels like an “end of days” bacchanal. The world is on fire and it’s fine as long as the drink and drug are flowing for those who have while the have-nots continue to be broken down. The themes and execution feel like a return to form for McDonagh and are in line with his previous works The Guard and Calvary after the lukewarm reception of his last film, War on Everyone.
The Forgiven will surely be a polarizing film for audiences when confronted with what are largely unlikeable and morally corrupted characters but nevertheless, it is always entertaining to watch beautiful people behaving badly.
The Forgiven plays both in-person and on digital during TIFF.