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Forsaken Review

February 19, 2016 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
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Forsaken Review  

Directed by: Jon Cassar
Written by: Brad Mirman

Kiefer Sutherland – John Henry Clayton
Donald Sutherland – Rev. Clayton
Brian Cox – James McCurdy
Siobhan Williams – Emily Chadwick
Michael Wincott – Dave Turner
Demi Moore – Mary-Alice Watson
Landon Liboiron – Will Pickard
Greg Ellis – Tom Watson
Wesley Morgan – Sam
Aaron Poole – Frank Tillman
Michael Therriault – Doc Miller
Christopher Rosamond – Daniel Petterson
Chris Ippolito – Bob Waters

Running Time: 90 minutes
Rated R for violence and some language.

The western is one of the most enduring of genre films. Tales of the Wild West have been a staple of Hollywood ever since the movie business began, capturing the American spirit and the lives of the stoic, vulnerable and often dangerous people living on the frontier. While the genre has certainly had its ups and downs over the years — not to mention a few periods of dormancy — it has always been able to make its way back to prominence, notably in 2015 with films like The Hateful Eight, The Revenant and Bone Tomahawk.

It is into this renewed interest in the genre that The Forsaken enters. The long-gestating collaboration between Kiefer Sutherland and director Jon Cassar aims to cast the spotlight back on the classic western film from before the days of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, focusing on the traditional conventions of the genre with a fair level of success.

The film stars the younger Sutherland as John Henry Clayton, a man returning to his home in Wyoming after a troubled period in his life during the seven years following the Civil War. His experiences in the war left him a changed man and he feels he has a lot to atone for, both in terms of his actions during the war and his time as a gunfighter after. No one agrees with that more than his father (Donald Sutherland), who serves as the reverend for the town of Fowler. John Henry’s actions have left a wide rift between the two, made worse by the fact that the younger Clayton wasn’t there to be with his mother when she passed.

John Henry sets to work trying to make a life for himself, which includes clearing the field his mother always wanted her men to take care of together and patching up his friendship with Mary-Alice Watson (Moore), the woman for whom he still carries a torch. But when he learns that a criminal gang working for the wealthy James McCurdy (Cox) is terrorizing ranchers who refuse to sell their land, he finds himself torn between helping the townspeople and upholding his vow of forsaking violence — a vow which may be the only avenue to mending fences with his father.

Forsaken has its origins in a long-seeded desire for Sutherland and Cassar, who directed fifty-eight episodes of 24, to do a western together. The two had discussed the idea while they worked together on the FOX drama, envisioning an old-fashioned, character-based film that would hearken back to the classics of the 1950s and 1960s. Brad Mirren’s script accomplishes that fairly well, embracing the tropes of the early westerns. From John Henry being forced to consider strapping his guns back on and the Cox’s corrupt land baron to Michael Wincott’s cultured, smooth-talking antagonist, this is a film that will feel very familiar to even cursory students of the western film.

However, while it is no doubt familiar, it manages to avoid playing like a cut-and-paste of the classics. Tack that down to the way Mirren’s dialogue is all character focused. There’s an economy of exposition in the script, utilized only when necessary to move the plot along which is a welcome change from many other films. The character work allows the film to sail through some bumpy plot points, usually carried out by Aaron Poole’s hot-headed and short-sighted henchman Frank Tillman. Tillman largely exists to move the plot along and keep the other antagonists from making poor decisions, without which it would be impossible to pull John Henry into the conflict.

By and large, the strengths of the film fall upon the acting. This is only the second film in the career of Kiefer and Donald Sutherland where the two have shared screen time, and the two make the most out of it. Most of the more compelling scenes in the film revolve around their strained relationship, with the elder Clayton going from a man filled with bitterness and disappointment for his son into one who sees the possibility of redemption and tries to act as the angel on his shoulder. As for the younger Sutherland, his performance is one of the real highlights here. He seems like such a quintessential fit for western films that it’s surprising he doesn’t have more in his resume. He nails the vulnerability underneath the steeliness that is part and parcel to the heroes of the genre that we know and love.

The supporting actors do fine work as well, particularly Michael Wincott. As the mercenary gunman Dave Turner, Wincott exudes charm and swagger. His character is also one of the more interesting on the page, fully aware of his employer’s villainy but showing more respect for his opponent than for the trigger-happy underlings that McCurdy employs. Demi Moore does decent work in a somewhat-underwritten role as Mary-Alice, while Cox chews scenery as his role demands.

As a director, Cassar makes no attempt to color outside the lines here. He knows what he’s going for and while there isn’t a lot of innovation here, he finds the right tone and pace of the film, never rushing ahead nor pulling back too hard. The spare amount of action scenes are shot well, with the climactic battle having a couple of particularly nice moments due to his use of set geography. Cinematographer Rene Ohashi captures the Alberta wilderness that substitutes for Wyoming beautifully and the score by Jonathan Goldsmith does its job nicely without being extravagant, giving the film the final bit it needs to satisfy fans of a film genre that has been criminally underexamined until recently.

The final score: review Good
The 411
While it doesn't break new ground by any means, Forsaken is a refreshingly traditional take on the western genre that succeeds on the strength of its talented cast. Kiefer Sutherland, Donald Sutherland and Michael Wincott shine amongst a bevy of solid supporting work in this tale of a gunfighter torn between his inclination toward violence and his need for redemption and reconciliation. While it may be a bit too slow for fans of more action-oriented Old West films, Jon Cassar's film offers a nice change of pace and a chance for its cast to deliver. It may have modest aims, but it accomplishes its task well and should satisfy western fans nicely.

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Forsaken, Jeremy Thomas