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NPR Arts & Life

A Father And Son Among Tumbling Tumbleweeds Of The Familiar

Kiefer Sutherland (left) as John Henry Clayton and Donald Sutherland (right) as Reverend William Clayton in the western <em>Forsaken</em>.
Dan Power
Courtesy of Momentum Pictures
Kiefer Sutherland (left) as John Henry Clayton and Donald Sutherland (right) as Reverend William Clayton in the western <em>Forsaken</em>.

In one of those funny quirks of the film business, it's been 20 years since the Sutherland boys have appeared in a movie together — and they've never done it as leads. With nearly 300 combined screen credits, you'd think they would have overlapped more than that without even realizing it. But maybe now elder statesman Donald, with that mane of white hair accumulated over decades of precisely calibrated stoic performances, and rugged Kiefer, who seems to growl even when he's happy, have some time on their hands since the endings of The Hunger Games and the 24revival. So in the meantime, why not pump out an old-timey Western together, with cowboys and saloons and debts unpaid — the kind of film fathers and sons might watch together on a lazy afternoon if there's nothing else to do?

There's no time wasted in bringing the generations together, as director Jon Cassar gets it done within the first five minutes. Kiefer is John Henry Clayton, a Civil War veteran who shows up on his father's small-town Wyoming doorstep after a 10-year absence. His mother has died, but that doesn't mean Pops is inclined to be nice; instead, the reverend (Donald) berates the boy for a decade of misdeeds and neglect. That's how it's done in this family.

What follows is paint-by-numbers gunslinging, with what appears to be some very efficient use of sets, a work ethic no doubt gleaned from Cassar's long career in TV (most relevant to this: he directed many episodes of 24). When John Henry rides into town, swearing he's given up his violent past, he quickly runs afoul of local heavies trying to scare the townsfolk into giving up their land. His newfound pacifism manifests itself in bizarre ways, as he not only allows the baddies to walk all over him, but even seems to go out of his way to let them humiliate him in public. Such a heavy burden this man will carry for approximately 65 minutes, until he realizes — much as Jack Bauer did time and time again — that shooting people is the only way to keep the peace in a lawless, manly land.

There appears to be a hierarchy of villainy, with the always-devilish Brian Cox (perhaps the only other character actor alive who could take a run at Donald's filmography) sitting pretty as the puppet master. But Cox largely stays out of the limelight, except for one speech where he gets to show us his wonderfully expressive deployments of the f-word. It's the dapper dan in the middle, a negotiator played by The Crow's Michael Wincott, who menaces with charisma. A few more mustache-twirling speeches from him would have upped this film's entertainment factor considerably.

There are a couple moments of intelligence, like one brief shot early on when John Henry, feeling threatened, reaches for the spot where he used to keep his holster. But the scenes with the Sutherlands together are disappointingly rote. One gives a monologue. The other slams his arms on the table. Then there's much aggressive standing and sitting, with unchallenging motivations: one God-fearing, the other God-denying. This continues until a crisis pushes them to let bygones be bygones. Those hoping for some real meaty family conflict will have to settle for some passive-aggression.

Forsaken plays like someone's hazy, half-remembered idea of a Western, from back when men were men, women were dead and "facing the consequences of violence" just meant leaving town on horseback for a while. "I just don't know where I fit in," John Henry laments at one point, a fairly on-the-nose diagnosis.

Some folks may say the Western is a dying art form express gratitude for anything that keeps the frontier alive, but that ignores the considerable advancements the genre has made in the past few decades. Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven stripped away much of the romanticism that movies like this used to attach to killing people. More recently, we've seen several outstanding entries in the genre: The Coen brothers' True Grit and Tommy Lee Jones' The Homesman both found fascinating new ways to wrestle with cowboy power dynamics and the illusion of masculinity in the West. Forsaken once more takes those things at face value.

For those who just want a taste of the way movies used to be made, before mean ol' Hollywood decided they weren't marketable anymore, Sutherland & Son will ably do the trick. But if it's something new you seek, partner, keep on wandering down that dusty trail.

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