“Eat the rich” has certainly been a modern theme throughout public discussion as the rich become richer and the poor become poorer. The billionaires who have a stranglehold over much of society have no empathy or disregard for those beneath them, and it's got to the point where much of their publicised behaviour and attitudes are so extreme it's almost farcical. We know the mega rich are typically awful people, and so do the movies.
Recent films like Parasite, Ready or Not and Knives Out have led on screen discussions about wealth and privilege, and in one way or another show how out of touch and terrible the upper echelons of society are. Writer and director John Michael McDonagh is the latest filmmaker to tell audiences “rich people are bad!” with The Forgiven, but unfortunately he says little else.
This adaptation of Lawrence Osborne's novel is a drama about a married couple Jo (Jessica Chastain) and David (Ralph Fiennes) en route to an extravagant party in the Moroccan desert. From their clothing, to the way they loudly proclaim their disdain towards the locals, these rich Londoners are quickly established as unlikeable protagonists. Arguing in the car whilst lost at night in the desert, they accidentally run over and kill a young boy. As they arrive at the grand villa hosting the party with a body in the back seat, the couple attempt to cover up the incident – until the boy's father, Abdellah (Ismael Kanater), arrives to collect the body and seek justice.
From there, the narrative splits into two strands: David and Abdellah embark on a journey together, both literal and spiritually, whilst Jo gets drunk and gets up to no good with the other rich party guests. It's the former narrative arc that is the far more engaging of the two. Fiennes unsurprisingly gives a good performance as a truly awful human being forced to confront his privilege and reckless behaviour, but it's Kanater who shines. There's a constant tension raging inside as he deals with the grief of losing his son, and it naturally comes through in quietly powerful moments.
On the flip side, however, the boozy side plot doesn't contribute anything to the story or viewing experience. The Forgiven throws subtlety out of the window and doubles down on showing how rich white people are bad – even after setting that up in the film's first few minutes. It's even more frustrating as that sounds because a talented cast is completely wasted. While Matt Smith is intriguing to watch as the main orchestrator of the soiree, his boyfriend played by the usually amazing Caleb Landry Jones brings absolutely nothing to the table. Even Christopher Abbot can't pull anything interesting out from his one-note character, a sleazy playboy who has eyes for Jo. Chastain is clearly having fun with Jo – particularly when the alcohol, drugs and flirting come out in full swing – but there are a few riveting moments where Jo shows how quietly ruthless she can be.
While the ending does complete David's character arc in a somewhat satisfying way, it doesn't add much to what the film says before the opening credits finish. The Forgiven is a shallow exploration of the culture clash between the West and Muslim culture, and of rich white folk in general. You'd be forgiven if you forget about this film soon after it ends.
The Forgiven plays exclusively in cinemas from September 2nd