Review: 'The Forgiven' with the Sands of Crime

Kurt Loder on

I don't know if it's true that a woman without discretion is like a gold ring in a pig's snout. What would that even mean if it were? But it's one of the wisps of exotic wisdom that drift across the sweltering sands of "The Forgiven," John Michael McDonagh's new movie about Eurotrash idlers going through the rites of listless decadence in the Moroccan desert.

We first meet up with David and Jo Henninger (Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain) as they're setting out from Tangier for a party being thrown by their... well, "friend" is too warm a word -- longtime acquaintance, let's say... Richard Galloway (Matt Smith), who lives in a luxurious villa out in the sun-blasted Sahara with his boyfriend Dally (Caleb Landry Jones). David is an English physician with adjustable morals, and Jo, his American wife, is a children's book author who hasn't written a word in eight years. David is also a functioning alcoholic and he's in something of a wine haze as he drives through the desert night, bickering with Jo and paying only cursory attention to the road ahead. So, when a young Arab boy suddenly pops up in his headlights, David hits him. And, as it turns out, kills him. A tragedy, of course -- but mainly an annoyance: Now he and Jo will be late for the party.

Richard's villa, when we eventually arrive there, is lit up with party lights and filled with the sort of globe-roaming swells you wouldn't really want to know too well: self-pleased entertainment journalists, well-heeled financial analysts, people like that. When Richard and Jo finally arrive here, their life quickly begins getting more complicated. The dead boy's body is brought in, the police take an interest, and eventually the kid's father arrives and requests -- or maybe demands, hard to be sure -- that David accompany him back to the village where he lives in order to be present at his late son's funeral. David sees no alternative to going along with this ominous proposal.

North Africa has cast its spell on many an adventurous bohemian over the decades -- Paul Bowles, Andre Gide, William Burroughs. But David is not of their ilk. He is unimpressed by the scenery (looking out at the vast desert one morning, he says, "Very picturesque, I suppose, in a banal way") and he doesn't care for the locals, or for the sort of fellow Westerners who enjoy living among them. ("I hate all the ethnic pretense and affectation," he hisses, looking around at the plush rugs and brass tchotchkes that fill Richard's villa.) So, he is not an ideal candidate for a trip out into the desert with a contemptuous Berber who is unlikely to wish him well. Nevertheless, he goes. And we, of course, tag along with him. Unfortunately, it turns out not to be the sort of journey one might expect, which is something of a disappointment.



Meanwhile, back at the villa, Jo is having adventures of her own, swaying in the courtyard to soft French dance pop, chopping lines of cocaine and steamily entangling herself with a solo party guest named Tom (Christopher Abbott), who lights her long-untended fire with the dimmest of embers. ("I like it here," he says to Jo. "It feels like a country where a useless man could be happy.")

The movie feels becalmed at some points -- undone by its blazing environments. Fiennes and Chastain are as skillful at negotiating their crucially flawed characters as you'd expect, and the film does tell a well-crafted story about the irresistible nature of Western commercial culture and the human toll of rootless modern ennui. But fans of, say, Paul Bowles, may feel they've heard at least one tale very much like this one before. (To such people I would recommend "The Sheltering Sky," the 1990 version of a Bowles novel, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci.) But Bowles is a little light on the sort of deep Maghrebian wisdom to be found here. "Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous," for example. Think about it.


Kurt Loder is the film critic for Reason Online. To find out more about Kurt Loder and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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