If “Forsaken” were any more old-fashioned, lenser Rene Ohashi might have filmed it in black-and-white, scripter Brad Mirman definitely would have trimmed the F-bombs from his dialogue, and the entire enterprise probably would bear the brand of RKO or Republic Pictures. Refreshingly and unabashedly sincere in its embrace of Western conventions and archetypes, this pleasingly retrograde sagebrush saga should play exceptionally well with currently under-served genre fans — except, perhaps, for those with low tolerance for salty language – and likely will enjoy a long shelf life as home-screen product after potentially profitable exposure in theatrical corrals.
The first-time onscreen pairing of Kiefer Sutherland and his dad, Donald Sutherland — as a prodigal son and his disapproving father — is a natural selling point for the film, one that conceivably could attract curiosity seekers not normally interested in oaters. But the casting also serves to enhance the emotional heft of the familiar storyline. These two evenly matched pros bring out the best in each other — maybe because they know exactly where to look for it — and the unaffected intensity of their key scenes together help make more than a few cliches seem, if not freshly minted, then newly reinvigorated.
The plot pivots on the return of gunslinger John Henry Clayton (Kiefer Sutherland) to his small Wyoming hometown of Fowler in 1872, several years after his Civil War service. During the time since his military discharge, John Henry has acquired a well-earned reputation as a fearsomely efficient shootist. And despite his announced intention to hang up his guns, just about everyone in Fowler — but especially his preacher father, Rev. William Clayton (Donald Sutherland) — is skeptical that he has had enough of death to last him a lifetime.
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For a while, however, John Henry really does behave like a changed man. He’s happy to see Mary Alice (Demi Moore), the love he left behind, but he resigns himself to the fact that she married another man, and had a son, during his long absence. He remains estranged from his father — the two men can scarcely converse without reopening old wounds and exchanging recriminations — but they gradually settle into relatively peaceful coexistence as John Henry clears parts of the family homestead that his late mother wanted farmed.
Unfortunately, there is a hungry serpent in this Garden of Eden: James McCurdy (Brian Cox), a ruthless businessman bent on forcing local farmers to sell him their land, so he can profit from the approaching railroad. Gentleman Dave Turner (Michael Wincott), a deceptively courtly hired gun who pays John Henry the respect of professional courtesy, is hired by McCurdy to “convince” holdouts to sign over their deeds. But while the silver-tongued Turner prefers to use salesmanship laced with intimidation, other McCurdy employees — including the hot-headed Frank Tillman (Aaron Poole) — are of a mind to simply shoot first, and last, and never ask any questions at all.
Evidencing such remarkable self-control that even Rev. Clayton is impressed, John Henry stoically turns the other cheek when baited, and then beaten, by Frank and his thuggish cohorts. But when the bad guys finally go too far — well, a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.
Emmy Award-winning TV director Jon Cassar (who previously teamed with Kiefer Sutherland on “24”) keeps a disciplined rein on the proceedings here, so that his 90-minute film feels neither rushed nor dawdling as it takes time for backstory and character development before the inevitable final shootout. Ohashi actually did shoot “Forsaken” in color, with Alberta capably doubling for Wyoming, but Cassar firmly resists what must have been a strong temptation to rely too heavily on strikingly beautiful exteriors.
Both Sutherlands look spot-on perfect for their roles; Kiefer’s character lines increase his flintiness quotient, while Donald’s flowing white hair and beard suggest a demanding Old Testament paterfamilias. And while it’s doubtless not a good idea to parse any part of the movie for possible echoes of their real-life relationship, the two actors are so affectingly poignant in a third-act scene of reconciliation that you may be hard-pressed to tell where your feelings for the characters end, and your feeling for the men playing them begins.
Supporting roles are well cast across the board, with Cox (whose blustering land-grabber does most of the R-worthy cussing) and Moore deserving credit for adding some semblance of depth to Western stereotypes. But the real scene-stealer here is Wincott, playing the most elegantly grandiloquent gunslinger this side of Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday in “Tombstone.” Both Cassar and Mirman obviously studied scads of old Westerns before making “Forsaken,” and learned their lessons well. But it would appear they paid particularly close attention to Budd Boetticher’s “Ride Lonesome” when it came time to resolve a conflict between two Wild West frenemies.