Film Review: Forsaken

Kiefer Sutherland and dad Donald are in top form playing father and son in an otherwise predictable western filled with silent-movie villainy and tropes already discarded by 1950s films in the genre.
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Bearing a plot—and even a title—similar to that of Unforgiven (1992), Forsaken is a well-crafted, determinedly old-fashioned western that offers no surprises and for all that reaches an emotionally satisfying conclusion. It would seem like the kind of thing Grandpa and the grandkids could watch together, were it not for the R-rated violence.

Originating as a pet project by "24" star Kiefer Sutherland, and helmed by one of that TV series' primary directors, Jon Cassar, it co-stars Sutherland and his estimable father, the great Donald Sutherland, as a fictional son and father. While this isn't their first film together—they each appeared in Max Dugan Returns (1983) and A Time to Kill (1996)—it's the first in which they share the screen. The younger Sutherland, playing an emotionally numbed character creeping toward catharsis, and the elder, playing his coldly angry father, are thoroughly convincing in their pas de deux of regret, recrimination and eventual reconciliation.

That may sound like a spoiler, but it's not. For all the beauty of Rene Ohashi's cinematography and Jonathan Goldsmith's poignant score, for all the trim efficiency of Cassar's direction, there is not a moment in this film where the outcome is not telegraphed with a clarity Western Union could only dream of. The by-the-numbers script by Brad Mirman and the over-the-top, practically mustache-swirling villainy of Brian Cox—playing an evil businessman buying or murdering his way to acquiring all the local farms in advance of the railroad coming through—are wearying. At least Michael Wincott is winning as Gentleman Dave Turner, a courtly gun-for-hire, despite his clichéd role as the noble adversary of Kiefer Sutherland's John Henry Clayton—they'd been on opposite sides during the Battle of Shiloh, you see.

They meet now after the traumatized former gunslinger John Henry, renouncing firearms, has returned home, to father Reverend Clayton's consternation. But John Henry's mother and brother both are dead, so like it or not, Clayton pere and fils have only each other now. John Henry once also had Mary Alice (Demi Moore), but when he never returned home from the war nor sent word, she—all together now—married a good man and had a child.

Now they and everyone else in the sheriff-less town are is trouble, since the evil businessman, McCurdy, has a gang of killers and bullies whom even Turner, who prefers using convincing talk to gunfire, can't control. Worst of the bunch are Frank Tillman (Aaron Poole) and Little Ned (Dylan Smith), whose antics call to mind nothing so much as those thugs punching the old lady over and over in Blazing Saddles. Yet their petty pestering of quiet man John Henry makes no sense, since they all know he's a renowned gunfighter. So why are they pushing his buttons over and over? Granted, they've never seen any westerns themselves, but when other characters in this very movie tell them not to keep poking the bear, they don't listen. Or look at it the other way: Since they're already killing people with impunity, why don't they just kill John Henry instead of fretting about when and if he'll get involved?

That's not the only story point that makes no sense. At one juncture, the townsfolk get together where they know the gang will be and ambush the varmints, killing a couple. So why don't those same townsfolk with those same rifles get together and ambush the gang in the saloon where the gang spends all day? Why they don't march into the bar as one and start blasting away as the gang members sit around playing cards? And, yes, we know John Henry wants to clear some land and plant some crops as a way of atonement, but why is he bothering, since McCurdy and company are just going to buy off or kill his father for the land?

The movie is too visually lovely to forsake, but the predictable story and basic plot holes remain unforgiven.

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