“They were careless people,” the narrator in “The Great Gatsby” says of two of that novel’s wealthiest, cruelest characters; “they smashed up things and creatures.” They would probably get along with the similarly careless wretches who populate “The Forgiven,” though especially the unhappily married couple who smash into a teenager, killing him.
David (an excellent Ralph Fiennes) and Jo (a decorative, badly used Jessica Chastain) are yelling — and looking — at each other while rocketing down a dark Moroccan road when they plow into the boy. For reasons that are more narratively useful than persuasive, they bring the body with them to their destination, a sprawling compound where a bacchanal is underway. There, after servants whisk away the body, David and Jo join the festivities, assuming their place among the other avatars of wealth, great privilege and bone-deep rot.
As Fitzgerald observed elsewhere, the very rich are different from you and me. They are not, though, always dissimilar onscreen, and in far too many movies, they tend to fall into reliably distinct camps of gaudy buffoons, heroic saviors or unrepentant villains. “The Forgiven” is about villains. Specifically, it centers on the kind of white scoundrels who — with their empty hours and seemingly bottomless pockets, their cultivated cynicism and to-the-manner-born prejudices — stir up trouble for less-privileged souls. These monsters twirl their mustaches, seduce the naïve and rob the credulous because they can. They also do so because authors know villains provide easy entertainment, including when they’re object lessons.
Certainly, in his adaptation of the Lawrence Osborne novel, the writer-director John Michael McDonagh has done his best to be diverting while he shoots fish in a barrel. His richest, most dubiously easy targets are the party’s hosts, an unctuous British libertine, Richard (Matt Smith, continuing his journey as Jeremy Irons 2.0), and his down-market American lover, Dally (Caleb Landry Jones). They’re introduced lounging in bed — the camera opens on Dally’s naked rear — as a visibly uneasy Moroccan servant enters with tea. Richard smiles at the man or maybe his discomfort. Is the servant uncomfortable with male intimacy, its unembarrassed display or merely his boss’s amused gaze?
McDonagh lets the moment linger, which outwardly lets him off the hook. It doesn’t, though, not really, and he is saying something by making two gay lovers the story’s most conspicuous embodiments of neocolonialist excesses. So it goes: That night, Richard refers to the servants as boys, and Dally winds up the party (and your sensitivities) by thanking their “little Moroccan friends” who renovated the compound. The guests in tuxes and gowns laugh and swirl, eating and boozing as Moroccans hover and serve. A shrieking blonde jumps in a pool the size of a lake. Later, Jo casually drops that she and David killed a Moroccan en route to the festivities; at another point, David sneers about “pederasts” and name checks Allen Ginsberg.
“The Forgiven” doesn’t get any subtler, although things improve when David agrees to drive off with the dead boy’s father, Abdellah (Ismael Kanater), and a companion, Anouar (Saïd Taghmaoui). It doesn’t make any sense given David’s prejudices and suspicions. He goes simply because the story needs him to, but it does get you away from the compound’s claustrophobia. Mostly, though, it allows you to spend time with Fiennes, whose performance — in its intricate, complex play of emotions and in the push-pull of David’s contempt for himself and for everything else — says more about this world’s nihilism than all the brittle chatter. Fiennes peels David in layers, unraveling this man until you see his hollow interior.
McDonagh’s work is more nuanced and his touch lighter in the scenes with David and these other men, even as the story grows heavier and then leaden. There’s less yammering and hyperbolizing, and McDonagh makes fine contrapuntal use of the landscape’s visual drama and of the chasm separating these characters. Here, in the prickling, ominous spaces between David and Abdellah, in their glances and halting words, you see how power flows from man to man, from world to world, and how it nourishes but also engulfs.
It’s then that you are reminded of the sharper work that McDonagh has done before, such as “Calvary” and “The Guard,” and how good he can be when characters talk because they have something to say.
Rated R for gun and vehicular violence. Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes. In theaters.