Going into Forsaken with the intent to enjoy yourself is quite easy: with likable real-life father/son pair Kiefer Sutherland and Donald Sutherland playing on-screen family, all set amidst the backdrop of a post-Civil War small western town, the potential for an emotionally-fueled slice of western escapism is palpable. And it should go without saying that the familial chemistry shared between the two leads is Forsaken‘s biggest draw.
They’re easy to watch, the setting is lush (while occasionally incongruous in a studio backlot kind-of-way), and Kiefer has the angsty gunslinger bit nailed down, but Forsaken‘s mind-numbing story derails the movie of all momentum. Its bad guys are bland (save one), its moralistic preachiness is off-putting, and its unadorned direction repeatedly robs potentially captivating scenes of any emotional relevance.
The Sutherlands occasionally manage to cut through that, but it’s far too rare. Here Sutherland the Senior plays William Clayton, a reverend in his small town and distraught after the death of his wife. Soon after her passing, Sutherland the Junior waltzes back into town as the estranged son John Henry. The two are curt and prickly, wallowing in the anxieties of the post-war landscape while still trying to be open and honest in a place that gutted people with such qualities.
We’re told, and not shown, that John Henry is an ex-bad ass. When he passes through main street, the bad guys, led by James McCurdy (Brian Cox) hope that if John Henry decides to choose a side in a local land grabbing war, it’s not against them. The rest of McCurdy’s troupe is led by Will Pickard (Aaron Poole), who’s the worst thing about Forsaken, and Dave Turner (Michael Wincott), who’s the hands-down best.
In a movie as plain as this, Wincott’s gentlemanly mustache-wielding pseudo-villain is nearly groundbreaking. He’s as smooth as silk delivering some Mad Libs lines out of the Big Bad Guy playbook, relinquishing scenes of their awkward hamminess and providing jolts of actual tension. He’s a hired gun on McCurdy’s dastardly real estate mongrel scheme, but he has the smarts to know when everyone else is doing something stupid.
That idiocy mostly originates from Poole’s Will Pickard. I can’t tell if it’s his fault or the framework shambles of Brad Mirman’s script, but Poole’s bad side airs on the level of childish bully rather than scary criminal. He’s just the exact level of villainy you expect the minute you see him; if he had a mustache, he’d twirl it, if he had access to a damsel and a rail road, well, you get where this is going. Standing next to Wincott, he’s like an elementary school rendition of “The Wheels On The Bus” opening for the New York Philharmonic.
Back on the good guy side of things, John Henry meets up with Mary Alice (Demi Moore), a suggested old flame from his past that’s moved on with her life in his absence. Like everything else in Forsaken, the lack of energy and follow-through makes us take Mirman’s dull-as-dirt dialogue on its own, and it’s hard to fully invest in their history because of the lack of assured panache. Moore and Sutherland have decent chemistry, but it’s nothing approaching the fireworks that are apparently sending her new reprobate husband Tom (Jonny Rees) into a jealous spiral.
That subplot attempts to tie itself back into the main drama before the third act, where Mary Alice learns that her family’s land is next under the all-seeing eye of McCurdy’s evil scheme. Forsaken‘s lone iota of a clever idea comes when the finale supersedes that farmhouse shootout suggested by its established plot, and John Henry takes the fight to the bad guys’ seedy saloon hideout in broad daylight.
It’s too little too late for a movie so aggressively abiding by the definition of mediocrity, unfortunately. With barely fifteen minutes of an admittedly succinct 90-minute runtime, the closing scenes really only remind you of how little has happened over the course of Forsaken‘s “story.” Nothing gets taken away, or learned, and the two Sutherland’s final goodbye feels like the only thing in Jon Cassar’s movie that’s actually rushed. His direction, coming nearly exclusively as a television hired gun, lends all of Forsaken what I can only describe as the NCIS effect: the uninspired visuals and staged production are the perfect match for the movie’s unimaginative plot.
Most amusingly, some riding-into-the-sunset closing narration (by Wincott, poor thing) suggests a level of heroism and legacy from John Henry that borders on the folkloric. As if the feeble, phony film that preceded it was the making of a new American Myth. Maybe that’s Cassar and Mirman’s idea of respecting their elders: creating an ode to the western down to the “Well, well, well” introductory line and high-noon shootout.
That might be true, but there’s a way to honor your forbears with energy and effervescence and not just gargling in the mastubatory revisiting of every cliché in the western handbook. Forsaken might be so unassuming as to not warrant true vitriol, but on the accounts of self-aggrandizement, it never even comes within shooting distance of earning such drastically misplaced esteem.
It's hard to be overtly opinionated regarding Forsaken, because the plodding, uneventful little movie never asks more of you than basic consciousness; it's like the cinematic equivalent of cleaning out dryer lint.