Kiefer Sutherland has been working as an actor since he was a teenager—his first appearance was in Max Dugan Returns, way back in 1983—yet he had never, until now, co-starred in a movie with his father. The two could have chosen a stronger debut family vehicle than Forsaken, a throwback Western that aims for tradition, but winds up embracing cliché. There’s the celebrated gunslinger (Kiefer) who’s trying to reform but gets dragged back into violent action against his will; the unscrupulous land baron (Brian Cox) preparing for a coming railroad by buying up every plot in town, and murdering those who refuse to sell; the villainous dandy (Michael Wincott) with a preference for velvet-tinged intimidation; the abandoned sweetheart (Demi Moore) who’s now married to another man but still clearly in love with our hero; etc. An opportunity to see the Sutherlands onscreen together—with Donald playing Kiefer’s disapproving preacher dad—is the only new thing that Forsaken has to offer. Whether that’s enough will vary according to taste.
Last year saw the release of several genuinely creative old-school Westerns, including The Salvation and Bone Tomahawk. Forsaken, by contrast, is the sort of movie in which we learn the name of Kiefer Sutherland’s character when someone sidles up to him in a saloon and says, “Well, well, well—if it ain’t John Henry Clayton.” (The screenplay was written by Brad Mirman, whose other credits include such turkeys as Body Of Evidence and Truth Or Consequences, N.M.; Kiefer himself directed the latter.) Having left Wyoming many years earlier to fight in the Civil War, John Henry has returned with a badass reputation that he’s eager to bury. He doesn’t carry a gun anymore, and he doesn’t want to fight, which makes it hard to comprehend why he continually provokes the henchmen of Cox’s James McCurdy. The answer, of course, is that the hero has to be humiliated and get the shit kicked out of him in order to stoke the audience’s bloodlust, so that his inevitable climactic decision to retaliate can be cheered. Remember when Unforgiven made that scenario infinitely sorrowful rather than just hypocritically cathartic?
Other aspects of the narrative are equally nonsensical—one act of violence is the equivalent of John Wick’s thugs killing Wick’s dog on purpose (i.e., knowing whose dog it is). And director Jon Cassar, who’s worked almost entirely in television (most notably on 24), lacks the formal brio to compensate for the script’s mundane dialogue and lapses in logic, shooting mostly in undistinguished small-screen close-ups. Even the dual-Sutherland scenes are disappointingly flat, though that’s arguably preferable to the discount Al Swearengen performance demanded of Cox (who speaks some derivation of “fuck” in almost every line). What occasionally makes Forsaken worth watching is Wincott, a superb character actor handed a role—“Gentleman” Dave Turner—that could have been dynamite given more screen time and purpose. As it is, Gentleman Dave’s professional respect for John Henry, and his dismay at the shoot-first credo of the gunmen working under him, combine with Wincott’s mischievous politesse to create a bad guy who’s more likable than the good guy, thereby facilitating an ending that manages to get away with echoing a movie as great as Budd Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome. Dave’s further adventures would be welcome.