The Forgiven: John Michael McDonagh on his 'noir in the desert'

Set in Morocco and starring Jessica Chastain and Ralph Fiennes, John Michael McDonagh’s new film The Forgiven is a powerful collision of haves and have-nots. The director talks to Alistair Harkness about controversies, influences and unwelcome comparisons to his filmmaker brother, Martin

Jessica Chastain and Christopher Abbot in The Forgiven, screening as part of this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival PIC: Courtesy of EIFF
Jessica Chastain and Christopher Abbot in The Forgiven, screening as part of this year's Edinburgh International Film Festival PIC: Courtesy of EIFF

“War on Everyone I expected to be divisive – and it was. This one I didn’t expect to be as divisive and it has proven to be. I guess a lot has happened over the last six years.” On the phone ahead of the Edinburgh International Film Festival premiere of his new movie The Forgiven, John Michael McDonagh is puzzling over its recent reception in the US. Specifically, he’s mulling over the effect the increasingly politicised film landscape might be having on more transgressive movies – the sort he’s made in the past, like 2016’s aforementioned War on Everyone, his take-no-prisoners corrupt cop comedy, or his debut The Guard, which launched his career, became a genuine box office and critical hit, and finally allowed him to emerge from the shadow of his younger brother, In Bruges director Martin McDonagh.

The Forgiven, though, isn’t really that type of film. Not on the surface. “The thing I’m coming up against is that people won’t accept unsympathetic characters anymore,” sighs McDonagh. “At least in America.”

Based on Lawrence Osborne’s 2014 novel of the same name, The Forgiven certainly has a few of those. Set in Morocco, it stars Ralph Fiennes and newly minted Oscar-winner Jessica Chastain as David and Jo Henninger, a privileged couple who knock over and kill a local Berber teenager who’s planning to car-jack them as they make their way to a decadent party in the desert to see a group of obnoxious friends they don’t seem to like very much.

Fiennes’ character, David, is especially overt in his disdain for everything. His years of alcoholism, boredom and privilege have ossified into a tiresome strain of withering libertarianism, yet he’s also the sort of person who’ll point out the hypocrisy of feigning offence at something rather than saying it isn’t true – which McDonagh thinks throws people. “In America there seems to be a resistance to the idea that someone can be an appalling person and say something that is philosophically true.”

There's also, he notes, been a resistance to the idea that the film isn’t a satire. “To me satire is when you’re creating exaggerated characters to make a political point, but I’m not trying to make a political point. I just thought of it as a noir in the desert.”

Like a noir protagonist, Fiennes’ character conforms to that existentialist idea of someone being unable to outrun their true nature. Yet The Forgiven also plays like a prestige picture being dismantled from within. It has the Oscar-winning stars, the gorgeous visuals (it was shot in Tangier and Erfoud, an oasis town in the Sahara desert), and a story that sincerely grapples with the consequences of its privileged characters’ actions. It’s also full of caustic asides that pour scorn on the sanctimonious tone those movies often strike and, to his credit, McDonagh refuses to fall into the trap of sentimentalising the Moroccan characters, preferring to give them agency in their interactions with the film’s white western protagonists.

“I sort of joked about it when we were making the film that it’s almost as if you're attacking the actual audience you want to come and see it and that probably isn't a good idea. But it is meant to be shot like an epic film.”

I ask if he looked at any epic desert movies for inspiration, but he says he tries to keep any chat about influences on the down-low these days after once mentioning Robert Bresson while promoting his second film Calvary. “We had a great screening at Sundance and immediately after it a critic went on Twitter and said, ‘He’s no Bresson’. And I thought, ‘Wow. You c***!’”

He roars with laughter, then tells me anyway the big influence on The Forgiven was Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger, one of his favourite movies. “Not that I got anywhere close, but that’d be the big one.

“But the other thing is,” he continues, “I'm getting sick and tired of directors who reference other films. That just bores me now. I’m not saying I’ve not done it. But as you make more films, shouldn’t all the images you come up with be images you come up with? You know, for good or ill? I don’t get the point of referencing Hitchcock or referring to De Palma, or whoever. All you’re saying is ‘I watched that film.’

“I’m not going to mention Edgar Wright,” he adds with a laugh.

He also seems bored with people comparing him and his brother. “We’ve got similar tastes, but it’s not like we ever collaborated.”

Indeed, McDonagh was actually the first to make inroads into the film business in the early 2000s when he was hired to write the script for Australian outlaw movie Ned Kelly, an early star vehicle for the late Heath Ledger. “It didn’t turn out how I wanted, which was a good thing and a bad thing,” he says now. “Working Title [the film’s production company] paid me a lot of money, so I spent a lot of years just lazing around, which I was happy to do. But once you've had a script made and you didn’t appreciate the film that was made, it forces you to control your work."

He’s planning to return to Australia for his next film, an Outback thriller called Fear is the Rider starring Mad Max: Fury Road’s Abbey Lee and one of the co-stars of The Forgiven, Christopher Abbot. The film itself is an adaptation of the book by Kenneth Cook, more famous for writing the source novel for Wake in Fright. “That’s probably the best Australian film of all time. Well that or Picnic at Hanging Rock.” He’s flying out to scout locations in September. “But we’re making an independent film and you never know what’s going to happen. The Forgiven almost fell apart four weeks before shooting. With independent film you never know when the money’s going to fall out. It’s just fingers crossed all the time.”

The Forgiven screens at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on 17 August and is on general release from 2 September. For tickets, visit www.edfilmfest.org.uk