(SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.
I felt a little out of sorts in my reaction to Calvary, admittedly, since it had been roundly acclaimed. I still think The Guard is by far John’s best work, striking a balance of warmth and wit he’s later sometime strained for, or reacted against; War on Everyone is often just too loud, abrasive and scattershot, when it needed to be more contained and moderated. Calvary found John proclaiming thematic value the way In Bruges managed with deceptive ease, but the results, probing religion, revenge and paedophile priests were over-schematic (and, in my take, let down by a key performance from Chris O’Dowd).
The Forgiven finds McDonagh adapting someone else’s work – he previously penned an adaption of Robert Drewe’s Our Sunshine, which became Gregor Jordan’s Ned Kelly – and locating many similar themes, of loss, revenge, responsibility, and impending mortality. Indeed, to be a little cynical, the mirroring of the lead protagonist’s resigned fate in both Calvary and The Forgiven might be construed as a calling card to respect and sobriety; this is a work of weight and importance, and you can tell this is so because I’ve just shot the lead in the final scene! Plus: the clash of East-West values! And class values!
McDonagh’s free pass might be that Lawrence Osborne’s 2012 novel is based – loosely - on a true story. The specifics of the truth? Osborne is as vague as possible – “Yes, though I reworked it to fit my own idea of a story. The characters are mine, and I was very familiar with the landscape in which the story occurs long before I heard the tale that I eventually used. In fact, the original story immediately reminded me of a place where I had spent a lot of time years before. And it seemed probable” – and from the sound of it, it may not even have included the same cultural and religious factors or chain of events (someone hit someone with a car in a foreign land and had to deal with the social and familial repercussions?)
The novel, dealing as it does with white privilege, and in a very direct and divisive way – an affluent couple, on their way to an even more affluent couple’s party, knock down a poor Moroccan boy in the middle of the night, killing him, and must deal with the grieving father’s demands – might be regarded as a fish-in-a-barrel setup. On the face of it, it’s one to earn instant garlands from the critics for being thematically “laudable” in all the right ways (having at the decadent elite, showing sensitivity towards victimised and subjugated indigenous people and their cultures and respecting their religious views).
Accordingly, the question must be asked: Was making it cynical on McD’s part – he knew he could get something made on the subject of white privilege? Possibly. McDonagh’s not facile, though, and you’d be hard-pressed to characterise the guy who made War on Everyone as bending over backward to deliver on-message movies. Realities of the marketplace may prevail, though, just as much in the indie sphere as at a studio (if the subject fits, you get a sale).
The irony of such diligence – or heart-bleeding, depending on how you look at it – is that McDonagh, and also Osborne if some responses to the novel are to be taken into consideration, falls into the trap of failing to service the very landscape he’s at pains to interrogate. Yes, sure, the libidinous westerners are presented in all their ingloriousness. But his attempts to portray the local response/perspective is rudimentary, cautious and at times even patronising.
Hamid: The tongue has no bones, sir. But it crushes all the same.
Of course, he has no first-hand knowledge, so this is learned response at best, meaning the staff at the villa are respectful and reticent, while nursing deep loathing at the general profligacy, lack of morals and contemptible attitudes on display. But there’s no more to them than that. Hamid (Mourad Zaoui) is a constant observer, but when McDonagh feels it incumbent to show his private views, he still expresses himself in guarded aphorisms. It’s a cute act of avoidance when asked his opinion by his boss (Matt Smith’s Richard Galloway), but evidence that McDonagh doesn’t really want to spend the time or energy the apparent rounded view would demand (“You should have a Twitter account”, his colleague jokes to him). They’re essentially Upstairs Downstairs, but without any specificity of insight.
Anouar (Saïd Taghmaoui a go-to Hollywood Arab since first attracting attention in La Haine, and fixture of a number of David O Russell movies) is the sympathetic presence, striking up a convivial relationship with David Henninger (Ralph Fiennes). David is responsible for the accident and subsequently pressed into journeying with the father Abdellah Raheri (Ismael Kanater) to attend funeral arrangements. There are vague philosophical fumblings about the disparity between the worthless rocks the Moroccans dig up and the fortunes the westerners pay for them, and Anouar waxes lyrical about going to live in Sweden, where it’s cool. None of this could be called devastating character acumen, and some might dismiss it as rote.
As for Abdellah, McDonagh makes him, as David observes “inscrutable”. Hamid himself professes not to know his nomad customs, which gives carte blanche to make stuff up. The central thrust – that David should even agree to the request, given the unknown/potential dangers to his person – is absurd enough on its own (we might retrospectively grant the stirrings of his conscience, that “everything must be faced”, but there’s no glimmer of it at this point).
On top of that, Abdellah plays a game, pretending not to speak English, laying down rules for David to observe and evidently assuming culpability (he hasn’t, at this point, spoken to the boy who accompanied his son, and so learned that David hid his son’s ID). We have no real insight into him, aside from his distress and a scene where he finally speaks to David. He gives him a piece of apple and tells him about fossils and loose women in Casablanca; are we to take it as read that his right to revenge/retaliation is justified by his belief system? That appears to be how most of those involved are responding. Yet he clearly lacks the mettle to do the deed itself, passing responsibility to the boy who didn’t want to be involved in the scheme in the first place. In context, Abdellah shows himself to be unworthy.
The burial of the ID seems to be a crucial point to those concerned, not least Richard in working out the truth of the situation. But is that really a sacrilegious act? Entirely passed over is the presence of the father’s gun, lending credence to David’s initial assumption that the boys were out on the road in the middle of the night because they were carjackers. More is made of this in the novel, it seems, but as it stands, it’s left dangling, doubtless wary of any intimation towards “He had it coming”; why the friend reports he was up on the hill withthe gun, while the son was down below, is as contextually unclear as anything else in their motivation.
McDonagh’s point may well be that the beliefs – the professedly deeply held religious beliefs – of the father are every bit as suspect and deserving of scepticism as those of the infidels, but since he doesn’t spend any time actually exploring the character, only a perfunctory reading is possible.
Indeed, while Fiennes is able to breathe life into David, albeit aided by sometimes clumsy exposition, none of the other characters fare nearly as well. Matt Smith provides a measured tone as the host, aware and conscientious towards local customs, but to an almost supercilious degree. He isn’t really interested in any kind of parity or common ground; he’s above it all, ensconced in his love nest with Dally (Caleb Landry Jones). The latter is a typical CLJ ghoul, and I have a feeling Jones will only accept parts that show him playing utterly contemptible and deplorable buffoons (both McDonaghs have made prior use of him to this end). Richard isn’t overtly callous the way David is, but he’s arch and sly (witness his allusion to “Phoenicians” when correcting Tom in a conversation on local deities).
Hamid: A woman without discretion is like a gold ring in a pig’s snout.
Jessica Chastain (Jo Herringer) is revealed as genuinely deeply cold and calculating in a manner her increasingly estranged husband ultimately is not, so something of a reversal is engineered. Although, Chastain never has any trouble playing someone aloof and innately unpleasant, meaning Jo has no negligible impact either way. Christopher Abbot initially seems engaging as Tom Day, but as soon as he becomes interested in Jo, further empathy is off the table. This rather leaves events at the villa, while David is in his drama, as no more than passably intriguing. None of the conversations about the subject of the movie – East-West differences – are insightful, and none of the debaucheries are remotely edgy.
Which means McDonagh has David’s journey as the meat of the piece, and he’s very lucky to have Fiennes essaying it; I suspect, without him, The Forgiven would be clutching at straws in terms of credibility. David is established as an unapologetic “functional alcoholic”, superior, cynical and dismissive. His response to the accident isn’t remotely remorseful; rather, it’s to drink more and protest at the prospect of having to pay anyone off (“You’re not being robbed. You’re being spared” Richard tries to point out). It’s never fully clear why he agrees to go (although Hamid has the cheek to intimate it is expected, yet after Richard has gone suggests “He didn’t have to go. It was a noble gesture”). He tells Jo “I’ll say I’m sorry”, and she responds “Are you sorry?”
It’s Richard’s tales of school that suggest a man whose encounter causes him to recall who he once was, a far cry from the unhappily married inebriate so detached from his values that he’ll grouch about the trouble his medical practice is in, when it’s only in said trouble because he was remiss in failing to identify a patient’s tumours (she died). Richard suggests David was once “More of an agitator, apparently”, citing an incident where he attached parachutes with swastikas to mice and dropped them off the school roof (the parachutes failed to open). “So he’s a lefty, then?” comes the response. Rather different – albeit, in its own way, still an agitator, just a bitter one – to his earlier explanation of Richard and Dally living in Morocco: “Gays always come to North Africa. Usually to bugger little Arab boys. It’s an Edwardian tradition”. David goes on to cite historical pederasts fitting his bill (including Wilde, Orton, Ginsberg. Burroughs). Accused of being a real shit, he replies “Passes the time in an incredibly tedious world”.
By the time of his returning to the villa, however, David has clearly changed in tone. Sobriety may have helped. It isn’t fear for his life (when confronted by the boy, he is entirely stoical: “Do it. It’s alright. Do it”. He doesn’t want to be the man he has become anymore). I don’t think it’s particularly sympathy for the father that changes him. Rather, it’s the capacity to take stock, which can only be expressed by an actor as talented as Fiennes. When McDonagh serves him rather pat material, such as Hamid giving David a glass of lager on his return and David asking his name, and then reserving his singular (observed) goodbye for Hamid, the movie’s in danger of diminishing the character to the rather crude level of his fellow guests, yet Fiennes is just about able to steer him through.
At any rate, this leaves The Forgiven with at least one ultimately sympathetic character (I’m not including Anouar and Hamid, because, as noted, I don’t believe they’ve been given sufficient development). I was curious that David takes the toy Dalek from the dead boy’s room, as a memento. It was evidently unearthed in the same arid landscape as the super-valuable trilobites. Is it a coincidence that the trilobite looks equally fake, clearly knocked up by the prop department? Not to suggest trilobites are fake (unlike dinosaurs), but their age and status may be far from that suggested by the official record. Whether McDonagh is aware of the footprint – of a sandal – crushing a trilobite is unclear. Obviously, this find has been debunked, as it conflicts with the imperial record. You know, the one set by those who call the shots, locking up in their fortified villas at night to keep out those – east and west alike –they have led on in a merry dance of deception.
The Forgiven is a consistent piece for McDonagh, then, since his work is nothing if not uneven. He can attract the same level of talent as his brother, but he’s in no danger of competing for Martin’s pedestal anytime soon. Talking of whom, his fourth feature, The Banshees of Inisherin, is due in October, reuniting Farrell and Gleeson. Perhaps it won’t be a Bruges or Billboards, but I’ll happily settle for a Psychopaths.