Westerns don’t get much more elemental than “Forsaken,” which tells an utterly familiar story and even boasts a title that invites you to recall “Unforgiven.” It’s notable for pairing Donald and Kiefer Sutherland as father and son in post-Civil War Wyoming, but the narrative by Brad Mirman feels as though it’s been cobbled together from every genre cliché he could remember.
Kiefer plays John Henry Clayton, who after army service became a professional gunslinger, much to the disgust of his preacher father William. Now, after a life-altering experience that’s briefly suggested in a prologue and later described in emotional detail, he returns to his hometown of Fowler, where he finds that his mother has died and his father is unwelcoming. He also discovers that the place is in the throes of a range war: expansion of the railway is imminent, and town boss James McCurdy (Brian Cox) has hired a bunch of gunmen, headed by Gentleman Dave Turner (Michael Wincott) and short-tempered Frank Tillman (Aaron Poole), to compel the locals to sell him their land by any means necessary—including beatings and even the equivalent of murder.
William is leading the opposition to McCurdy’s greedy scheme, but though he preaches pacifism the villain and his henchmen suspect that his son will take a different approach, even though the absence of a sidearm on his hip is conspicuous and he makes a point of avoiding conflict even to the point of enduring insults without complaint. John Henry also begins clearing land that his mother had wanted to turn to farming, and gradually he and his father begin to bond again, even coming to terms over the death of his older brother years earlier, for which the reformed gunman blames himself.
The beats that follow are pretty formulaic. The ranchers try to mount resistance to McCurdy’s game, with limited success—and not a few losses of their own. John Henry is the object of a brutal beating by Tillman and his minions. Turner, who generally oozes courtliness, shows that he can be a stone-cold killer as well. And did we mention that John Henry must periodically confront his simmering feelings for Mary Alice (Demi Moore), his long-ago girlfriend, now married to a farmer who can’t help but see that the spark between the two remains and looks to making a deal with McCurdy as a way of salvaging his honor. Still, John Henry restrains himself from packing lead and taking righteous vengeance until…well, you can guess. Anyone who’s ever seen an oater will know well in advance that like Michael Corleone, he’ll be dragged back to a place he doesn’t want to be.
As directed by Jon Cassar, a television veteran, “Forsaken” can be awfully pokey as well as terribly predictable. Nonetheless it has some old-fashioned virtues. The locations are evocative, and the overall production (designed by Ken Rempel, with art direction by Kathy McCoy and costumes by Christopher Hargadon) handsome. Cinematographer Rene Ohashi contributes attractive images. And the final showdown is not only effectively choreographed by Cassar and edited by Susan Shipton, but boasts a nifty twist close, one of the picture’s few surprises.
Most importantly, the acting is good. Cox is an old hand at this sort of avaricious nastiness, and plays it to the hilt, while Moore contributes an effective portrait of a woman whose old feelings are suddenly reignited. Wincott obviously relishes playing the smooth operator and Poole the snidely grubby back-shooter. The rest of the supporting roles have been well cast.
But it’s naturally the rapport between the two Sutherlands that’s most impressive. Donald, with white hair and beard, brings gravitas to a rather stock part, denouncing what he perceives as evil with authority while bringing a touch of grace to his more intimate moments with Kiefer. The latter gets a bit too tremulous at some points, but overall takes a solid stab at the iconic figure who’s trying desperately to leave his violent past behind but ultimately has to take action. But one might have done without the narrator who pops up at the close to reveal what happens to the characters.
“Forsaken” can be described as a sort of cinematic antique, a fifties western that’s been spruced up but doesn’t even try to hide its dusty origins. But it has small pleasures, especially in the casting, but is more likely to find its proper home on cable rather than in the multiplex.