What’s it About?
Kiefer and Donald Sutherland share the screen in this brooding western about an embittered gunslinger who attempts to make amends with his estranged father whilst their community is besieged by ruthless land-grabbers.
Directed by Jon Cassar
I’m a sucker for a good western. Always have been. It’s not my go to genre but when good word of mouth along with a good director, writer and cast is attached, I get even more excited about them. And with studios still a bit antsy and ambivalent about the western, it hasn’t been exactly a dry well, of late, with them. From The Revenant, Hateful Eight, Slow West (With Michael Fassbender) to Bone Tomahawk and even TV shows dressed as modern westerns, take Justified as an example, the western still appears to be alive and well. The odds of seeing one become a box office titan like any given superhero Hollywood blockbuster is practically nil, but, many movie lovers will indulge in a western periodically and not be overtly disappointed in doing so. That is the case with “Forsaken” from director Jon Cassar of “24” fame.
Cassar’s western is so unpretentious, straightforward and completely uncomplicated that it is a bit outwardly striking at first. There is an adjustment period where one may feel that Cassar is following the playbook of “how to build a western” (the fine line between homage and just plain rip off could be debatable) but when you start to see the film is a story about an exploration and voyage then it becomes illicitly real and surprisingly charming. There is a narrow and uncompromising vision that immerses the viewer in a time capsule and transports them to the 40’s, 50’s and even the 60’s where shades of grey were sometimes less examined and scrutinized in major westerns of those eras.
In Forsaken, much of the story provided by scribe Brad Mirman (The Good Shepard), is pretty much black and white. You know who the bad guys are and you like and root for the underdogs, downtrodden and of course the protagonist, here, played by Kiefer Sutherland (24, Mirrors, The Lost Boys).
Sutherland portrays John Henry Clayton, a hardened gunslinger veteran who wanders from town to town trying to put his violent and grisly past behind him. His wanderlust brings him back home to the town he was born and raised in to find his father and town preacher, William, played by the regal Donald Sutherland (Ordinary People, Salem’s Lot, Invasion), a widower. William, who has demons of his own, is a true stoic western figure in this tale. He has never lost his faith, tends to his land and property and never lets his emotions get the better of him. Until John Henry returns home.
The two, who have great differences to work out involving JH’s recently deceased mother and longtime dead brother, have a long road to reconciliation, which Cassar explores with JH’s disbelief in the lord and William’s unfaltering acceptance in what God has bestowed to the Clayton clan, no matter how terrible the cost. It is made very clear, during a tense dinner scene, that William is most displeased with JH but he eventually sees, in his actions, that young John in hardened by his past and seeks only to redeem himself.
The two Sutherlands, in their first on screen collaboration together, are amazing to watch. Whether it is the familial bond, or the mastery of two great actors working off of each other, the dynamic is a wonder to observe as they gradually come full circle with William accepting who JH really has become and JH reconciling what he once was with who he needs to be. But the film isn’t just about them. Brian Cox (Manhunter) brilliantly plays the foul mouthed land grabber James McCurdy who enlists a “fixer” gunslinger, named Dave, to help with his “persuasion” issues with local land owners from the town who have declined to sell their land.
The fixer is played with a serious and classy gravity that lends itself to a razor precision performance by esteemed character player Michael Wincott (The Crow, Alien: Resurrection). The restless and highly volatile “heavy,” (who also works for McCurdy and is always at odds with Dave) though, is played with smarmy, dirty aplomb by Aaron Poole (The Last Will and Testament of Rosalind Leigh).
Rounding the character off in a surprising and refreshing bit of casting here, is the quietly powerful Demi Moore (Ghost), who plays Mary Ellen, and old flame of JH’s who could not wait for him any longer and ends up with a family of her own. John Henry’s return becomes more entangled and demanding when he discovers this, and has to remain a true gentleman, even though his heart is obviously stricken. Moore’s turn is a revelation (she disappears into the role) and proves that with solid material and a simple piece of drama that Moore can shine through drab make up and costumes to emote with the best of what the mostly male cast can muster up.
When Forsaken explores dark themes of redemption, lost love and disregarded faith, it works on a sublime level and to the credit of the filmmakers, takes place mostly during the day. The scenery and landscapes are beautifully rendered and composed allowing for exquisite cinematography to take precedent. In the first few minutes, Cassar gives us proper “prodigal son-returns-home” montages of a rider on a horse travelling across grassy plains with mountainous backdrops looming. And the film remains looking beautifully done until the final shot.
Let’s not forget that this journey leads somewhere and even though Forsaken doesn’t up the ante until the last 15 minutes, it’s still a great payoff with everyone (with the exception of one like-able bad guy) getting their just desserts. A bloody and well choreographed shoot-out ensues and we are treated to a simple throwback experience dropped in from right out of Gunsmoke.
Forsaken does not, in any means, try to be anything other than a brief and immensely satisfying quickie. No cliché and trope goes un-turned here. You can almost count those off with both hands, but because of it’s simplicity and the impressive look, feel and work of the stellar cast, I didn’t care one bit that I’ve seen this all before. The movie, in such a short running time, delves into such emotion, raw drama, angst of the times, family and faith issues and even the price of leading a violent life in such brave fashion. It left me very impressed. It is a assured piece of western movie-making. Everything in it rings confidently and it is not overtly slick or stylized or even “updated” in any way. It gives props to those classic western tropes that disappeared and became unwanted in mainstream Hollywood, with other genres disguising as such.
Definitely watch “Forsaken” for the strength of the Sutherlands working together and off of each other, to near perfection, and for the admirable work all around with the cast and crew. It is, in most recent memory, a prominent stand out piece of western nostalgia that relies heavily on it’s influences, as they remain where they should be…worn on it’s sleeve. Highly recommended!