Starring: Keifer Sutherland, Donald Sutherland, Michael Wincott, Demi Moore
Director: Jon Cassar
Mood: If you’re feeling extra Canadian and want to watch a powerful Western that gives you all the Great White North vibes but also all the feels thanks to the Sutherlands.
Forsaken was another of my $5 DVD bin rescues. I spotted it shortly after enjoying Donald in Dawn Rider, and you can’t really go wrong with Kiefer.
But months passed and I never watched it. I’d go on a Kirk Douglas bender, or a James Garner bender, or watch the first season of Deadwood for the third time… for some reason, basically every other Western in my collection was more enticing.
Now I’ve seen Forsaken three times. And let me tell you, it gets better and better on every viewing. It’s a heartbreaking father-son story, on top of a beautifully shot Western, on top of a man’s bloody journey to redemption.
Forsaken opens with a super dark scene where a woman is howling in agony while a man holds the body of a teenage boy covered in blood. That was the single glimpse you get of the past that John Henry Clayton (Kiefer Sutherland) is trying to leave behind.
John Henry rides through a gorgeous Alberta landscape to his hometown, intending to repair his relationship with his parents. Reverend Samuel Clayton (Donald Sutherland) steps out onto his porch, and the smile immediately slips from his face at the sight of his son. Yikes.
He says, “your mother is dead”, then turns and goes inside. That’s pretty much the mood for the first half hour – John Henry trying to live a ‘normal’ life working the farm like his ma would have wanted, and the Reverend venting 10 years of disappointment, shame, and misunderstanding.
John Henry’s backstory slowly comes out: going off to war, unintentionally getting caught up in killing afterwards, and earning a reputation as an outlaw. Meanwhile, the good people in his hometown are being bullied into selling their farms to greedy James McCurdy (Brian Cox). He’s hired a posse led by Frank Tillman (Aaron Poole) and Dave Turner (Michael Wincott) to make sure nobody resists.
So the town needs someone strong enough to stand up to McCurdy’s men, but John Henry is determined to prove to his dad that he’s changed, and won’t raise a fist let alone pick up a gun. How long can that last?
Actually, all the way to the end. Most Westerns tend to be reactive (shootouts, brawls, revenge plots), but Forsaken is an exercise in restraint… until it suddenly snaps.
Donald and Kiefer both give excellent performances, and their onscreen chemistry is so good it’s often painful to watch. Kiefer actually commissioned Forsaken’s story so they could make another film together (the only other time was Kiefer’s first movie, 1983’s Max Dugan Returns).
My favourite thing about Donald Sutherland is that no one in Hollywood dares try to tame him in his old age. Whether he’s a bounty hunter or a Reverend or President Snow, he’s got that wild white hair that’s as untouchable as his 60+ year career.
And even though Donald was born and raised in Canada (like Kiefer and co-stars Michael Wincott and Aaron Poole), he acquired a hint of an English accent from a decade in London – and it gives him this air of refinement.
Kiefer gives you a huge f*cking performance bursting out of a man who is fighting back everything inside of him. He was already a standout back when he did Young Guns, but now he brings this well-worn feel to the character of John Henry. The role needed someone who could pack a ton of emotion into silence, and Kiefer did the thing.
There’s a scene where John Henry takes an absolutely brutal beating without once defending himself, coming out of it bloodied and almost unconscious yet somehow radiating strength. It’s really something to behold.
Then you have MICHAEL F*CKING WINCOTT. The moment I saw his face and heard that distinctive voice I flashed back on his other amazing performances (The Crow, Basquiat, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Three Musketeers, Romeo is Bleeding…). I didn’t even realize he was in Westworld, as the early-model host Old Bill who mans Anthony Hopkins’ basement bar.
This guy has the most impressive ability to immerse in any role. It was a struggle to come up with words to even describe him. And being a normally word-vomity person, that’s really saying something.
In Forsaken, Wincott is everything I could want in a well-dressed, well-mannered Southern gentleman killer. His lines are delivered with the softness of a man so confident in his skill that he doesn’t need to raise his voice or utter threats to exude authority. I’d pay good money to see him in more Westerns. He could be an outstanding Johnny Ringo.
I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but he could play Doc Holliday.
Aaron Poole as hired bully Frank Tillman is unfortunately flat and uninteresting. A more convincing performance on his part would have made Forsaken absolutely perfect. All of the hired goons feel a bit too modern and shallow, but Poole in particular needed to be so much bigger – or at least sinister.
Even though he came across as a major asshole, there didn’t seem to be any real justification for why every man in town was afraid of him. He kind of recites his lines, so you just can’t buy into the character. He does show slightly more depth in his final scene, but by then I’d already written him off.
Brian Cox is solid AF as the Big Bad Boss McCurdy. He has a thoroughly commanding presence that reminded me a bit of Al Swearengen.
A big surprise for me was Demi Moore as Mary Alice Watson. Literally surprised – her name wasn’t even on the DVD cover, so I had no idea she was in Forsaken until she was there on my screen. And she’s good – strong and willful, but also a bit worn down; it’s a subtle performance that feels realistic. The only problem is that she’s only in a handful of scenes, so you can’t quite get into her relationship with John Henry.
The costumes in Forsaken are particularly well done. Right before the final showdown, Kiefer steps into the street and the camera slowly pans up from his extremely worn-out boots that perfectly reflect where he’s at in life.
Apparently Forsaken was originally twice the length (three hours instead of 90 minutes) and included another story of a young couple living a doomed love story. The young man was a gunslinger running with the bad guys. All of that material was scrapped by the producers, as well as all of John Henry’s lost decade.
I am smitten with Forsaken, and not just because it reminded me about the total f*cking awesomeness of Michael Wincott. This is my favourite Kiefer performance I’ve ever seen, and I can’t believe there wasn’t more buzz around it.
But also… please, give me another Michael Wincott Western.