It’s hard to believe that Kiefer Sutherland had never appeared on-screen with his legendary father in his 36-year career before Forsaken (editors note: A Time to Kill doesn’t really count). Both, of course, are seasoned, powerful actors, and here they play off each other wonderfully. It’s unfortunate that their first outing together had to be this predictable, dishwatery western.
The plot creaks with clichė. Kiefer plays John Henry Clayton, a notorious gunslinger who’s trying to do good to please his pa and returns home, but what do you know, baddies are out to get him. Brian Cox is a sweary land baron who will murder to get every plot in town for the sake of a forthcoming railroad. Demi Moore, yes, Demi Moore, plays John Henry’s sweetheart he left behind for the war, but of course is now married to another man despite clearly still being in love with him. The only thing the movie has new to offer is seeing Kiefer and Donald together.
The Sutherlands do their best with the insipid, uninspired dialogue, and spin a father-son relationship that’s the most interesting part of Forsaken, and could have carried a whole movie on its own. Donald Sutherland plays Reverend Clayton, John Henry’s disapproving father, who looks the part with his beautiful mane of white hair. John Henry’s mother has passed away, only compounding the condemnation of his son. “You would have come home if she was dying,” he says, “but you wouldn’t come home when she was living and full of hope.” I didn’t notice how hokey that line of dialogue was until I typed it out. I guess that’s Donald Sutherland for you. The rest of the movie is well-cast; Kiefer shows off his grizzled acting chops previously displayed in 24, whilst all the baddies relish in their evilness, especially Michael Wincott. He plays “Gentleman” Dave Turner, a bloodthirsty dandy, with equal parts menace and southern charm. His character has a lot of potential to really dazzle, but the movie doesn’t know what to do with him, and leaves him badly underused. In a perfect world, someone would make a spin-off based on his character.
However, it’s a western, so there has to be action. The rest of the movie plods along through scenes and characters that, if you’re familiar with more than a handful of 1950s B-movie westerns, you’ll have seen many times before, the careful, undistinguished direction doesn’t do enough to make up for the predictable story and banal dialogue. There are attempts at exploring classic western themes such as guilt and redemption, but are presented with little resourcefulness. This movie is a far cry from recent creative takes on the western such as The Salvation and Slow West, but Forsaken isn’t trying to be one of those. It’s an attempt at a traditional western throwback, which could have worked in its own right (and would have been a welcome counterpoint to the recent trend of revisionist westerns), but sadly lacks the sparkle or vision to pull it off.