A natural born gunslinger’s futile attempt at redemption, only to be pulled back into violence due to inevitable circumstances, is such a common trope in westerns that it would be easier to count the number of genre examples that don’t exploit it. One of the best films centered around this theme is “Unforgiven,” yet it would be unfair to compare any new similar feature to Clint Eastwood’s genre-bending masterpiece, since only a handful of movies are as good, especially when it comes to pitch perfect screenplays.
“Forsaken” follows the “gunslinger with a violent past looking for a peaceful future” template so closely that even the protagonist’s name, John Henry (Kiefer Sutherland), is exactly the name you’d expect that character to have in a western like this. Even though it doesn’t offer an altogether fresh voice for the genre, “Forsaken” does an admirable job of executing a base western template. Loyal fans of the genre will get exactly what they’re looking for, nothing less, but nothing more.
The screenplay by Brad Mirman, who also wrote Kiefer Sutherland’s first feature directorial effort, “Truth or Consequences N.M.,” sticks close to the predictable three-act structure of the redemption-centric western. It begins with John coming back home after a lifetime of killing, first during the Civil War, then to appease a thirst for blood as a hired gun. John’s father, Reverend Clayton (Donald Sutherland), is unsure whether or not John deserves a chance at a normal life. Clayton’s a man of peace, and believes that anyone who participated in so much violence might not be able to be saved.
The way the father and son’s relationship develops through John’s genuine attempts at turning his life around is handled in a fairly superficial manner, right down to a subplot about them rebuilding the family farm, which, guess what, serves as a metaphor for the rekindling of the duo’s relationship. What saves the depthless writing is the emotionally charged performances by the real life father and son team. Director Jon Cassar produced Kiefer Sutherland’s hit show “24,” and directed him in over sixty episodes, so he knows how to use his strengths as a brooding presence. Just like he did with Jack Bauer, Sutherland again finds a way to communicate deeply suppressed pain and regret while pretending to be an emotionless macho archetype.
The second act introduces the inevitable violent conflict that plagues the town, a bold-faced injustice that the now-peaceful gunslinger will have to deal with one way or the other. We get the usual holy trinity of bad guys. The Brain is a slimy landowner named McCurdy (the ever dependable Brian Cox), who strong-arms poor citizens out of their lands. The Executor is a cunning ex-soldier named Dave Turner (Michael Wincott, whose reptilian vibe is always welcome), who serves as the typical “we’re not so different, you and I” mirror to the protagonist. The Muscle is a trigger-happy goon named Will (Landon Liboiron), whose only mission in the screenplay is to let his temper get the better of him so he’ll do something that will finally motivate John to once again pick up them six shooters.
I admire Cassar and Mirman’s dedication in letting John stick to his newfound nonviolent ways even as he witnesses his fellow townsfolk get killed and beaten, and while getting beaten pretty badly himself. It’s a shame that the R rating, fully deserved thanks to a considerable amount of blood and Brian Cox’s potty mouth, will probably keep the faith-based audience away, because here’s a film that effectively, if a bit superficially, explores what it truly means to turn the other cheek during times of great injustice, while finding faith in something greater than oneself.
The way “Forsaken” deals with the violent-nonviolent dichotomy between the father and son is so much more interesting than anything else in the film, including an instantly forgettable romance sub-plot with John’s old flame, played by Demi Moore, that I almost wished that it went the extra mile and didn’t deliver the explosive climax we all know is coming. Yes, the third act is predictable to a T, but at least we’re in the safe hands of the “24” team when shit hits the fan, so you know that we’ll get a creatively choreographed action set piece.
One of the most positive aspects of “Forsaken” is its under 90-minute runtime. It’s derivative of a lot of genre material that came before it, but at least it doesn’t overstay its welcome. Old-school western fans won’t find a lot of originality here, but if you’re looking for a well-executed, straight genre exercise, give it a shot. [B]