Lawrence Toppman

‘Forsaken’ proves old Westerns can have new life in them

(L-R): Kiefer Sutherland as John Henry Clayton and Donald Sutherland as Reverend William Clayton in the western “Forsaken.”
(L-R): Kiefer Sutherland as John Henry Clayton and Donald Sutherland as Reverend William Clayton in the western “Forsaken.” Momentum Pictures

True, we have seen almost all the elements in “Forsaken” in a hundred Westerns of the past. But they’re assembled with such care that there’s room for version 101.

John Henry Clayton (Kiefer Sutherland), who has acquired a reputation as a gunslinger in the years after the Civil War, returns to his boyhood home. His father (Donald Sutherland), a preacher whose coldness helped drive the young man away long ago, takes him back after John Henry swears he’s hung up his guns.

But has he? Townspeople hope he’ll strap them on again to battle shooters hired by McCurdy (Brian Cox), a saloonkeeper who decides to buy out farmers before the railroad arrives – or, failing that, have them taken out in coffins. A punk named Frank Tillman (Aaron Poole) does most of the killing; dapper Dave Turner (Michael Wincott), Frank’s boss, tries to use reason rather than weapons to persuade farmers to relocate.

Even if you haven’t seen “Shane” or “The Gunfighter” or any other film that inspired “Forsaken,” you can see where most of this is going. McCurdy finally threatens the family of Tom Watson, whose wife (Demi Moore) was John Henry’s sweetheart before the war. And when his thugs attack the preacher....

The movie has four significant virtues, principally its cast. The two Sutherlands have a natural combative but caring chemistry; Moore, now in her early 50s, has a tough rawboned appeal and strength of character; Cox plays blunt cruelty well, and nobody can insinuate menace like the sad-eyed, gravel-voiced Wincott.

Cinematographer Rene Ohashi provides an old-fashioned, Technicolor-style beauty for the landscapes of Alberta, Canada. Director Jon Cassar, who helmed both the “24” miniseries and many episodes of the TV show, makes the most of his reunion with Kiefer Sutherland and elicits a subtle, powerful performance.

And writer Brad Mirman assembles familiar elements skilfully while introducing two new ones: A piece of gunplay etiquette I had not seen before – though I believed it – and a scene where townspeople band together to take on the gunmen, with hapless results. (Guys who don’t normally handle guns don’t get good with them overnight.)

Mirman even provides an epilogue in which we find out what happened to some of the characters. That’s novel, too: We’re used to Westerns where somebody settles down or rides off into the sunset, but we don’t expect to learn what occurred after their horse’s rump disappeared over the horizon.

Toppman: 704-358-5232


Cast: Kiefer Sutherland, Donald Sutherland, Demi Moore, Brian Cox, Michael Wincott.

Director: Jon Cassar.

Length: 90 minutes.

Rating: R (violence, some profanity).