Greetings again from the darkness. Writer-director John Michael McDonagh (older brother of Oscar winner Martin McDonagh) has delivered a couple of fine movies in the past: CALVARY (2014) and THE GUARD (2011), and he’s never been one to shy away from controversial characters or topics. This time, he has adapted the 2012 novel from British writer Lawrence Osborne, and in this process, has continued his fascination with the all-too-human dark nature of some folks. Somewhat surprisingly, most of this is so obvious and blatant, only those who prefer thoughts be spoon-fed will appreciate the lack of subtlety.
Married couple David Henninger (Ralph Fiennes) and Jo (Oscar winner Jessica Chastain) are en route to a lavish party, and before the opening credits have ended, the depth of their strained relationship is crystal clear. David is a doctor who takes as a compliment his wife’s description of him as a “highly functioning alcoholic”, while she, a former writer, mostly seems along for the ride. We presume this couple of convenience has reached the point where remaining together is merely easier than the break that seems appropriate. After drinking entirely too much, David rents a car in Morocco and the couple heads out for a nighttime drive through the Sahara. While arguing about whether they are lost, an inebriated David runs over a local boy. Where previously we found the couple insufferable, a line of morality is crossed and they load the boy in the car and continue onward for a late arrival to the party.
The party at the stunning desert villa is hosted by Richard (an always terrific Matt Smith) and his partner Dally (an always strange and interesting Caleb Landry Jones). The entitlement shown by the privileged (and of course morally reprehensible) party people is contrasted with the quiet dignity of the staff of Muslim locals, including the head of staff, Hamid (Mourad Zaoui). Richard and Dally are most concerned about how the young boy’s corpse will disrupt the party, while David seems more bitter than usual at how a poor local boy could inconvenience him.
Although the police rule this an accident, the tone shifts quickly when the boy’s father (Ismael Kanater) shows up to collect his son’s body. By claiming local custom, he coerces David to ride back to the village with him for the burial and service. It’s here where the movie splits into two pieces. On one hand, we see David accompanying the man who holds him responsible for his son’s death, while simultaneously, the party-goers are reveling in debauchery. The clash of cultures is evident not just in the sparse home of the boy’s father when compared to the party’s resort, but also in the decadence of the party people when compared to the grieving and emotional father. Standouts at the shindig include a wild party girl (Abbey Lee) who seems constantly inebriated, yet never hungover, and Tom (Christopher Abbott), “the American” whose heavy flirtatious exchanges with Jo lead to booze and alcohol, and those carnal activities that follow such behavior.
We get why the bored younger wife takes advantage of temporary freedom and opportunity to cut loose, and Ms. Chastain (as always) is tremendous and believable. However, it’s David’s trip with the boy’s father that holds the real potential in taking this film to the next level. Fiennes nails the grumpy, rich guy role, and his interaction with the father and, especially, with Anouar (Said Taghmaoui), the father’s friend, that provide the tension and true emotion. Previous McDonagh collaborator Larry Smith provides the rich and awe-inspiring cinematography, and the cast performs admirably … even those portraying “useless people”. It’s difficult to explain why the movie isn’t better than it is, although it is plenty watchable.
Opening in theaters on June 30, 2022