If you’re a fan of either of the Sutherlands, father Donald or son Kiefer, then you probably got as excited as I did upon learning that the two of them had made a film together. With over 300 films between them, the two have never made an entire film together. The Western Forsaken, written by Brad Mirman, and directed by Jon Cassar, and which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, promised to be an exciting vehicle for the father-son duo. Unfortunately, Forsaken tries too hard to be the Oscar-winning Unforgiven, ultimately failing miserably.
The premise of Forsaken is a tried-and-true one for Western films, so it may sound familiar.
After serving in the Civil War and then becoming a gunfighter in subsequent years, John Henry Clayton (Kiefer Sutherland) retires after a gruesome mistake, returns to his hometown, and attempts to repair his relationship with his estranged father, Reverend William Clayton (Donald Sutherland). While attempting to patch up the father-son bond, John Henry reconnects with his love Mary-Alice (Demi Moore), who has married and borne a son despite still loving her old beau. John Henry discovers that the town in being terrorized by villainous land-grabber McCurdy (Brian Cox), who has hired a gang to help him.
That’s a bit longer than the brief snippet provided by Showtime, which is airing the film, but it sounds like the usual Western film fare, right? The only problem with a formulaic plot for any film, but especially for the iconic American film genre, the Western, is that everyone involved in the project has to be wary of was falling into clichés.
I have to say that most of the professional critics, and a majority of the reviewers on IMDb, think Forsaken is wonderful, if only because, according to Joe Leydon of Variety.com, it is “refreshingly and unabashedly sincere in its embrace of Western conventions and archetypes,” and is a “pleasingly retrograde sagebrush saga.” If “embracing Western conventions and archetypes” means piling on the clichés, then Forsaken embraced them with a vengeance. Unfortunately, none of the worn-out character motifs or plot devices added anything to the genre. “Retrograde” does not equal “quality,” unfortunately. Most reviewers, whether professional or not, seemed so thrilled to see the Sutherlands paired in Forsaken that the film’s weaknesses, which were many, were overlooked. Perhaps many of the films viewers who wrote good reviews were too young to have seen the ground-breaking Unforgiven, which embraced the Western genre’s tropes and clichés but turned them into something breathtakingly new.
The film actually begins with a man holding a dead son, and a bloody-handed woman screaming. Cut to the face of Kiefer, stepping back into the darkness. Uh-oh, somebody made a boo-boo, and that somebody is Kiefer’s character, and that kind of Big Bad Mistake seemed like a reasonably good way to start the film. If only we’d gotten a bit more of that scene or of the Big Bad Mistake.
But we didn’t.
I read that the film was originally three hours long, concentrating much of the storyline on the parallel story of the mother and father of the boy whom Kiefer’s character mistakenly killed, and that most of that original version of the film was left on the cutting-room floor. Unfortunately, that opening scene that was all we got of the life-altering backstory, and it simply wasn’t enough to understand Kiefer’s character. Though Kiefer’s John Henry mentioned it in a “confession” to his father, we never got any explanation about why it devastated him so much that he abandoned his life and career as a gunslinger.
Donald Sutherland, as the patriarch Reverend William Clayton, started off the film fine. He walked onto his porch with an expectant look on his face, frowning when he saw that the visitor was son Kiefer, playing Clayton’s son, John Henry. “Your mother’s dead,” he stated before he turned and went back into the house. It was a good set-up: the father looking forward to a visitor, unhappy and disappointed that it was his son, a son who’d obviously been absent long enough not to know that his mother was dead. Kiefer’s John Henry followed father Reverend William into the house, and Donald got to deliver a few more relatively interesting lines, many of which alluded to the fact that John Henry was such a tremendous disappointment to his parents, who wondered what they’d done wrong to have their son turn into such a killer.
Kiefer Sutherland, as the prodigal son John Henry, seemed to be trying his best to live up to father Donald’s acting in many of the scenes. Maybe Kiefer would have done a better job had the screenplay not been filled with so many trite characters, predictable scenes, and unmemorable lines. Though John Henry took off his guns because of a mistake, and though he claimed he was trying to change his ways, no one could have watched that film without knowing that, eventually, John Henry was going to put those pistols back on and have the Big Bad Gunfight. Too bad Kiefer’s character spent so much of the film clearing a field and occasionally visiting with his old flame, Mary-Alice (Demi Moore), who had almost as small a part as her film-husband, whose name I can’t even recall.
I’m not sure why Demi Moore was in Forsaken, since she had so little screen time. Anyone could have played her part, which was unmemorable. Demi, thinner than she’s ever been in her life, and looking unhealthily gaunt, played her “I waited for you” lines with about as much excitement as she she could muster, which isn’t a compliment. Her character could have been edited out of the film, letting the movie concentrate instead only on the father-son relationship, and no one would have missed anything. After all, the relationship between Mary-Alice and John Henry was rated G, and there was none of the electricity that Gary Oldman provided opposite Demi in The Scarlet Letter, so Mary-Alice was a real throwaway.
Brian Cox played the villain McCurdy, who, for some unexplained reason, wanted all the land of the ranchers and farmers in the unnamed area. Despite using f-word more often in Forsaken than in his entire career (and I’m counting Deadwood), Cox had some of the best lines in the film, and he delivered them with his usual aplomb.
McCurdy: I’m sorry for your loss.
Woman: No, you ain’t… [When the day comes that someone stands up to you], I want to be here to spit on your grave.
McCurdy: Feel free to do so, provided you can find your way to the front of the line.
Mary-Alice’s husband: I’ve decided not to sell to you.
McCurdy: (laughing so well, it sounds genuine) … Words were spoke. Hands were shook.
McCurdy: Your husband and I have spoken about his selling his farm.
Mary-Alice: I’d be surprised if my husband entertained such an idea.
McCurdy: Well, Ma’am, if that surprises you, then you’ll be dumbstruck to learn he’s agreed to the sale of the property.
Mary-Alice: I don’t believe you… I want you off my land… If we’re still here [after the sale deadline]…
McCurdy: Then I’d start looking for a black dress.
Gentleman Dave Turner (Michael Wincott), the loquacious hired gun, tried a little too hard to imitate, if not replicate, Val Kilmer’s Oscar-winning performance in Tombstone, complete with Southern accent. I expected Gentleman Dave to pop out with “I’m your Huckleberry” through most of the film. Despite the actor’s best efforts, he failed to become interesting. I’m not sure why this character was in the film either. He provided a bit of menace, but not enough to keep building the tension. Further, when the Big Bad Gunfight came around… well, I don’t want to give anything away… yet.
You know this story: Relatively good boy goes off the Civil Way, is devastated by the killing, becomes a gunslinger, makes a bad mistake, decides to come home and start over, vowing never to strap on his guns again. Boy gets repeatedly taunted and mocked by local bad boys, gets beat up pretty bad by said bad boys, stays humiliatingly passive in the face of increasing violence, is devastated when his father gets stabbed in the back (literally), and finally retrieves his gun to have the Big Bad Gunfight.
We never got the real story behind John Henry’s mistake: maybe too much was left on the cutting-room floor, but the brief snippet we got was unsatisfactory. The mistaken shooting started the film with intensity, but then Forsaken degenerated into a meandering, predictable story.
All the members of the gang know John Henry. What? They all grew up together or something? Even the villain of the piece, McCurdy, knows Reverend Clayton on a first-name basis: the Reverend tries to get McCurdy to stop his land-grabbing, calling him “Samuel.” It made little sense that everybody knew each other for, like, their whole entire lives.
Everybody and his brother knows that John Henry is eventually going to put his guns back on, so delaying the moment for 70 minutes of a 90-minute film was really dragging things out. I mean, d-r-a-g-g-i-n-g-t-h-i-n-g-s-o-u-t.
And that big gunfight the audience is waiting for? It never happens. At the crucial moment, John Henry abandons the hired killer in the street, claiming he has to have a Colt to fight fairly, then runs into the hotel/saloon and, instead, kills Villain McCurdy.
Does John Henry come back out with the Colt to kill Hired Gun?
No, he does not.
They chit-chat in a really unbelievable way, then wounded Daddy Sutherland limps out of doctor’s office to Son Kiefer who’s on horseback, preparing to leave again. Daddy Sutherland, in a genuinely moving moment, sobs and begs Son Kiefer not to leave.
Cut to him riding out of town and off into the metaphorical sunset (heading westward), with a Voice-Over courtesy of the Hired Gun, regaling all the reported sightings of Son Kiefer, who’s never seen again.
And that’s the end of the film.
And, no, I’m not kidding.
Forsaken clearly wanted to be another Unforgiven, the Oscar-winning film directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, and Forsaken even modeled scenes, character behavior, and lines after Unforgiven. Considering the fact that Unforgiven was examining and overturning the very clichés and tropes it was presenting, Forsaken would have had a difficult time re-examining those tropes. Forsaken failed to give us anything new or interesting in the Western film genre.
Part of what made Unforgiven so brilliant was that, despite the presence of standard Western characters and clichés, the audience never really knew what was going to happen. Despite the presence of the gunfighter, the unschooled kid who wants to be famous as a gunslinger, the bully Bad Guy, all the characters did unpredictable things. Morgan Freeman’s Ned is anxious to kill the cowboys who cut up the whore so he can get the reward money, but at the last moment, with the cowboys in his sights, he cannot pull the trigger. Little Bill, the Bad Boy of the film, is building his own house, and not doing very well at it.
In some of the best scenes of the film, Little Bill mocks the biographer of English Bob (Richard Harris, in his best role) — another gunslinger who’s come to kill the cowboys — calling English Bob the “Duck of Death” rather than the Duke, revealing a marvelous and completely unexpected sense of humor. I realize that actor Gene Hackman came up with those details, often surprising director Clint Eastwood as well as fellow cast members, but that’s what I meant when I said that the actors themselves have to beware of clichés when making a film that includes standard Western tropes: neither of the Sutherlands pulled off an Oscar-winning performance in Forsaken, if only because they didn’t add anything unexpected to the tropes.
Throughout Unforgiven, Eastwood’s hired gun William Munny keeps insisting, “I ain’t like that no more,” referring to his violent (and sometimes glorified and exaggerated past). When the final showdown arrives, featuring “known killer” William Munny and the film’s Bad Boy, Sheriff Little Bill (played by Gene Hackman in an Oscar-winning performance) no one in the audience knows whether William Munny really isn’t “like that no more” or whether he’s going to kill Little Bill.
Unforgiven has other strengths: it’s a “dark Western that deals frankly with the uglier aspects of violence and how complicated truths are distorted into simplistic myths about the Old West.” Despite aspiring to be like Unforgiven, the Sutherland film, through no fault of the lead actors, simply didn’t have any deep messages or startling characterizations.
I like Kiefer Sutherland. He’s a pretty good actor. He does a reasonably good job in most of his films. But he tried too hard to be another Clint Eastwood in Forsaken. I know Keifer can’t help the fact that he’s only 5’8″ but when all the other characters — except for Brian Cox and Demi Moore — literally tower over you and make you look like a little kid, then it’s really hard for you to pull off the Big Bad Gunfighter, complete with frock-coat and squinty eyes, heading off to whip all the Bad Boys.
But the worst part of the film was when Kiefer’s John Henry stole lines right out of Unforgiven in the final saloon shootout. It was just sad. Unforgiven’s Little Bill became Forsaken’s Little Ned, but the audience didn’t even know who Ned was, let alone that he was Little Ned, so I kept thinking of Unforgiven instead. The shootout in the saloon wasn’t anything at all compared to Clint’s bad-ass shoot-fest in his Oscar-winning film, so Forsaken became sad, really.
Ultimately, Forsaken, despite uniting the talents of father and son Donald and Kiefer Sutherland, and despite the Sutherlands’ obvious on-screen chemistry, was a complete and utter disappointment, which you never would have guessed from the film’s official trailer.
I hope someone re-unites these two actors in a film with a brilliant script.
That would be something worth seeing.
My original Top 10 Westerns post
If You’re Going to Shoot,
Shoot: Don’t Talk
is now divided into two posts,
updated with official trailers and film availability:
I’m Your Huckleberry:
5 More Top Westerns
(originally films #6-10)