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You can just see Kiefer Sutherland trying to will himself into Clint Eastwood’s boots in Forsaken, which is not a synonym for Unforgiven but sounds and plays close enough to it. This ultra-traditional, Canadian-shot Western centers on a retired gunslinger who tries very, very hard to keep his revolver in its holster — he really does — but you know all along what lies in store in the final reel. Prolific television director Jon Cassar’s first theatrical feature scrupulously adheres to all the genre rules, which means both that the story is entirely predictable dramatically but that it also delivers some of the form’s most elemental pleasures. Momentum acquired U.S. theatrical rights at Toronto for a film that will play better with the heartland public that likes old-fashioned yarns rather than with sophisticated urban audiences.
How often have we heard this one before — about the young man who learned to kill in the Civil War, found new habits hard to kick afterwards, did some things he regrets and now returns home determined to hang up his gun belt once and for all? The younger Sutherland plays just such a fellow, John Henry Clayton, who surprises his preacher father William (Kiefer’s dad, Donald Sutherland) by showing up at family ranch after many years but is instantly upbraided for not returning earlier to see his mother again before she died.
All the backstory and scene-setting in Brad Mirman’s script gets things off to a slow start, as John Henry must also reconnect with his former love (Demi Moore), who finally gave up waiting and married somebody else, and is sized up by quick-on-the-trigger pretty boy Frank (Aaron Poole) and slick hired gun Dave Turner (Michael Wincott at his smoothly menacing, deep-voiced best). These and other goons work for local boss McCurdy (Brian Cox), who aims to take over all the locals’ ranches one way or the other.
Even within the film’s short 90 minutes, too much time is devoted to the reverend’s recriminations for his son’s neglectful attitude and ungodly life, as well as to the younger man’s boring clearing of some land that he views as a way to make amends. The younger Sutherland also for too long resembles a pressure cooker that’s about to blow; sweaty, his lips pursed and his voice tightened by emotional restraint, the actor hasn’t worked out enough variations on expressing the great effort John Henry must expend to prevent himself from blowing his top and pumping all the bad guys full of lead.
However, once the pieces are all in their places, the deliberate set-up begins to pay some dividends to those who relish the form; after all, Westerns have long been the repository of much of America’s folklore and there are primal satisfactions to be taken from seeing the rituals played out time and again.
So, of course, when one of McCurdy’s morons goes too far, John Henry finally straps ’em on once more to put things right in town. At this point, Cassar’s overly fastidious preparation suddenly seems worthwhile, and an eventful shootout in a saloon is stretched and milked for all it’s worth. It’s nothing Western fans haven’t seen countless times before but it still does the trick.
Kiefer Sutherland looks scruffy like Eastwood in Unforgiven, gets beat up a lot and has the welcome opportunity to play son to his own father in a film for the first time. In dramatic terms, the pairing provides more emoting opportunities for dear old dad, whose white-bearded reverend is forced to try every argument he can to get his boy to do the right thing. Still, the showiest roles belong to Wincott and Poole as opposite types of Old West gunmen, and they both make the most of them.
Production values are fastidious, and Alberta provided the endlessly scenic locations.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Gala)
U.S. distribution: Momentum Films
Production: Minds Eye Entertainment, Panacea Entertainment, Rollercoaster Entertainment, Vortex Words+Pictures, Moving Pictures Media
Cast: Kiefer Sutherland, Donald Sutherland, Brian Cox, Michael Wincott, Aaron Poole, Demi Moore
Director: Jon Cassar
Screenwriter: Brad Mirman
Producers: Kevin DeWalt, Josh Miller, Bill Marks, Gary Howsam, Isabella Marchese Ragona
Executive producers: Lisa Byrne, Jon Cassar, Kenny Cheung, Trish Cook, Wilson Da Silva, Gerard Demaer, Doug Falconer, Harry F. Gabel, Dan Galang, Richard Goldstein, Jessica Martins, Kathy McCoy, Patrick Roy, Ivan Sabourin, Jeff Sackman, Mark Slone, Lisa Sohn, Paul Tan, Barbara Voynovich, Trevor Wilson, Ted Yew, Craig Yu
Director of photography: Rene Ohashi
Production designer: Ken Rempel
Costume designer: Christopher Hargadon
Editor: Susan Shipton
Music: Jonathan Goldsmith
Casting: Victoria Thomas, Carmen Kotyk
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