One morning, the son arrives, face downcast and repentant. The father meets the prodigal on the doorstep, stern and unforgiving.
“Your mother has passed.”
“I didn’t know. How did she die?”
“In my arms. Begging for you.”
The father, a preacher of milksop theology—God demands we suffer, it is not for us to ask why—will acquiesce in time and forgive the son for his 10 year absence. The son, trailing home the accumulated blood of a decade of soldiering and gunfighting, will try to bury his rifles and bend his swords into plowshares. But the Old West is slow to forgive and even slower to forget.
Much like the recent Diablo (2015), Jon Cassar’s Forsaken is an overall middling Western which can expect to gain much word-of-mouth due to its casting. Whereas the former featured Clint Eastwood’s son Scott squinting and scowling to the best of his imitative ability, the latter features the father-son duo of Kiefer and Donald Sutherland. Kiefer plays John Henry Clayton, a tortured Civil War veteran and gunslinger seeking to escape his past. Donald plays Rev. Clayton, a father of leonine countenance but pacifistic spirit. Together they form the fulcrum of a tepid, well-worn morality play about violence that plays like a watered down Unforgiven (1992). Local businessman James McCurdy (Brian Cox) has been hiring ruthless gunslingers to murder nearby homesteaders out of the their property. Everyone realizes that John Henry is the only man who could end their reign of terror. But he has “moved on from that kind of life.”
The entire film marches towards the inevitable moment when John Henry straps on his six-shooters “one last time” to bring bloody justice. He passes through the standard, ritualistic humiliations like the Stations of the Cross: first come the insults, then the demasculinization—he must clean the boots of his tormentors like a woman—then the public beatings. And, of course, he withstands these beatings by “refusing to stay down.”
So generic are these tribulations and story beats that they could have entered the realm of self-aware camp if they weren’t played so straight. McCurdy’s gunslingers are so enthusiastically sociopathic, so ready and eager to kill their own number if they misbehave on raids that they smack of parody. Cox’s performance proves a true blessing: if he had been one iota less intimidating, less believable as a bona fide piece of capitalistic garbage the entire film would have fallen apart. Here is a man we can believe would hire such Klaus Kinski wannabes.