Have you ever noticed how, in Western culture, when referring to someone’s death, writers feel obliged to insert the word “tragic” somewhere in the sentence? Is there any other kind, a reader might rightly ask. Sometimes they mean “unexpected,” a kind of shorthand intended to show that the life in question was cut short before its time. But just as often, the phrase “tragic death” is simply redundant, a trite cliché intended to signify that the speaker isn’t some callous bastard.
Writer-director John Michael McDonagh recognizes that not all deaths are tragic. Some are merciful, others accidental; while many are unfortunate, on some occasions, people meet an end that could be described as “poetic” — or at the least, deserved. McDonagh (like younger brother Martin) is a brute-force moralist. Both siblings write scripts in which the term “reckoning” often applies, which is to say, movies and plays where atonement is meted out in a blunt and bloody fashion, often with darkly comic undertones. John Michael’s first three features — “The Guard,” “Calvary” and “War on Everyone” — certainly qualify, and his fourth, “The Forgiven,” isn’t merely concerned with such themes; it’s consumed by them.
Undeniably wicked yet deliciously prickly in its portrayal of adult affairs, “The Forgiven” takes place in Morocco, where life is cheap, but some things — like decency, respect and a clean conscience — can’t be bought. The film stars Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain as David and Jo, a posh European couple on holiday in the Sahara, who kill a boy by accident and see the situation not as a tragedy but more of an inconvenience.
It’s hardly a coincidence that Jo has brought along a copy of André Gide’s “The Immoralist” to read. David and Jo are too blasé about the trip to perceive themselves as literary figures — although that’s exactly what they are: complicated protagonists of Lawrence Osborne’s biting 2012 novel. McDonagh saw something in the book, and while his adaptation is a fairly faithful rendering of the incidents and individuals contained therein, he tweaks it here and there to suit his own worldview, especially in the way he directs the film’s last few minutes.
“The Forgiven” observes — and judges — how ostensibly “civilized” outsiders conduct themselves in a place where laws don’t touch them because they can buy their way out of any situation, an oasis rendered exotic by such authors as Evelyn Waugh and Paul Bowles (whose more impure motives are here cast into the light: “to bugger little Arab boys,” according to McDonagh’s typically brusque and deliberately offensive dialogue). A travel writer-cum-social critic, Osborne seems to have been inspired by the (mis)conduct he observed when living in Morocco, cataloging the excesses as a kind of damning evidence: If something terrible should happen to these perceived infidels, they will have deserved it, for escaping to the desert for their debauchery, then shipping in oranges from Spain, butter from Paris and drinking water from another corner of the country.
David and Jo have been invited to a party at an old friend’s ksour in Azna. Their host is a snob (Matt Smith) whose partner (Caleb Landry Jones) throws decadent, tone-deaf parties, the sheer excess of which is an insult to the locals, who could live for years on the resources wasted for one night’s revelry. David’s a “functioning alcoholic” who tanks up on liquor before making the drive, then hits a young fossil seller en route, killing him instantly. It was after dark, and the boy stepped into David’s path. He refuses to acknowledge responsibility, insisting that the boy was to blame. Jo has misgivings, but invents her own excuses. Maybe the kid was a carjacker — and owing to a revolver revealed early on, the film allows that maybe he was.
Still, there’s no denying: David has blood on his hands — quite literally, as McDonagh makes a point of showing his stained driving gloves — and as the movie proceeds, the will gradually gain perspective on the situation. He will, in fact, have to face the boy’s father, convey his contrition as convincingly as possible and make the journey all the way to Tafal’aalt to attend the funeral. These things are the custom, we are told. So is payment, and David brings 1,000 euros along as blood money. He intends to pay not a centime more.
Is that all a life is worth? And what of David’s? There’s a good chance, he realizes, that he won’t return from the burial trek. He fears he might be killed on the way by ISIS (the characters barely attempt to disguise their contempt for the locals), or executed by the dead boy’s vengeful father, Abdellah (Ismael Kanater), stoic but not as shallow a stereotype as he first appears. While David’s away, Jo seems genuinely concerned but also liberated. The role might not appear to have much to offer Chastain , but it becomes the richest in many ways, as she acts out, quite recklessly, pursuing an affair with a bisexual American (Christopher Abbott) because she can.
McDonagh has the nerve to make these characters deeply off-putting, if not downright unlikable, to his audience. These are upper-class, over-educated, under-compassionate gargoyles, the lot of them — self-anointed elitists who would not recoil at allegations of “privilege” (white or otherwise) and who might, in fact, be all too happy to reiterate their superiority over others if so accused.
But McDonagh loves his monsters, and in casting someone as adept at conveying the nuances of the character’s transformation as Fiennes, he shows that he understands the core tragedy of “The Forgiven.” It’s not the boy’s death we mourn. “The kid is a nobody,” David sneers. It’s the fact that this seemingly irredeemable character, David, could come around to finding his own humanity, and that the epiphany still might not be enough to save him. “It had never occurred to him why he had not been forgiven, because he had forgiven himself,” Osborne writes in the book’s final chapter. Earlier, Jo also admits, “I don’t need to be forgiven anymore.” McDonagh’s characters are more complex than the initial caricatures make them out to be — perhaps, in the end, even pitiful — leaving audiences to decide how they feel about their ultimate fates.