The dividing line between a film being an homage and a rip-off is sorely tested with "Forsaken", a 2015 Canadian Western by director Jon Cassar, who is best known for his acclaimed, award-winning work in television. This is a rare venture into feature film making for him and the result left me with decidedly mixed emotions. The film marks another collaboration between Cassar and actor Kiefer Sutherland, who starred in Cassar's wildly successful TV series "24". That the two men are comfortable with each other's style is immediately apparent from the first frames of the film. We want to extend kudos to them for bravely venturing where few in the movie industry dare to tread any longer: the realm of the Western, a genre that has been routinely neglected for decades. Despite the success of Westerns such as "Unforgiven", "Dances With Wolves" and "Open Range", studio chiefs can't seem to get over the ""Heaven's Gate" syndrome, the monumental 1980 Western that almost sunk United Artists. Even hardened criminals are punished less time than the poor Western genre,so we extend our respect to anyone who tries, no matter modestly, to revive it. The problem with "Forsaken" is that a lot of talented people are doing fine work in a film that is so blatantly inspired by Clint Eastwood's Oscar winning "Unforgiven" that it comes close to bordering on parody. The initial blame begins with screenwriter Brad Mirman, who depends far too heavily on elements from Eastwood's magnificent production. Let's start with the title, which is a transparent attempt to evoke "Unforgiven". (In fairness, Eastwood himself was less-than-original in his use of this title. He changed the film's title from "The William Munny Killings" and replaced it with the name of an unrelated John Huston Western from 1960, "The Unforgiven".) Then there is the movie's protagonist, John Henry Clayton (Kiefer Sutherland), who carries similar baggage to Eastwood's William Munny. He is haunted by a violent past and a penchant for committing bloodshed. He has returned to his hometown after a period of years and hopes to live his life as a pacifist, a lofty goal that the viewer will recognize as being doomed from the get-go. He soon finds that the town is populated by cowardly people who are letting a greedy land baron, James McCurdy (Brian Cox) use a mercenary gang to intimidate or even kill any homesteader who refuses his offer to buy their land. As in "Unforgiven", our hero is initially slow to anger and resists his inner demons. In Clayton's case, he is routinely abused, insulted and beaten by the mercenaries, who are led by Frank (Aaron Poole), who is so vicious that he even gets chastised by his employer, McCurdy. I kept waiting for a character to appear who would emulate Richard Harris's English Bob, the aristocratic gunslinger from "Unforgiven". Sure enough, along comes Gentleman Dave Turner (Michael Wincott), who displays the wit and gallows humor of dear ol' English Bob. Not helping matters is director Cassar, who aids and abets this pantomime by insisting that Sutherland pretentiously pose like Eastwood in "Unforgiven", as well as speak like him (distinctive, barely audible voice) and dress like him (he even wears a hat that is more than coincidentally similar to Eastwood's from that film). The "homage" syndrome goes into overdrive in the film's violent conclusion, which- to the surprise of no one familiar with "Unforgiven"- also takes place in a saloon, where a heavily-armed Clayton enters and engages a small army of bad guys in a one-man massacre. At times, it appears to be a frame-by-frame remake of the Eastwood film.(In fairness, Cassar does dip a bit outside of the "Unforgiven" pool long enough to replicate a sequence from the climactic barroom shootout from "The Shootist".) The epilogue imitates "Unforgiven" in an unforgivable manner, with scenes at an isolated grave while a narrative fills us in on the fate of the main characters.
Despite all of these reservations, it may come as a surprise to you that I liked and admired "Forsaken" very much. The script does introduce a few original elements. When Clayton returns home many years after experiencing the horrors of the war, he discovers that his former lover, Mary-Alice (Demi Moore), had presumed he was dead and ended up marrying a local man. They now have a small son and although Mary-Ellen professes to be perfectly happy, it's quite apparent there is still a spark between she and Clayton. More intriguingly, there is Clayton's relationship to his father, William (Donald Sutherland), the local reverend, who welcomes his estranged son back by informing him that his mother died and that her last hope was to see him but he never came. The two men settle into a tense domestic situation until John finally unburdens himself about a terrible secret that has been haunting him and that has inspired him to renounce violence. He also blames himself for the accidental death of his brother when they were kids. Ultimately, the clearing of the air leads both father and son to form a close bond but it is threatened by McCurdy and his men- and we know it will only be a matter of time until John takes up arms again. This plot element (the reluctant gunslinger) has been a staple of the Western genre for many years. (Think "The Gunfighter", "Shane", "The Shootist") but it still provides ample dramatic circumstances for a good director to capitalize on- and Jon Cassar is a good director. He has a real feel for the Western genre and elicits uniformly excellent performances from his entire cast, including Demi Moore who is refreshingly cast in a mature, non-glam role. To credit screenwriter Mirman, he capitalizes on the first screen teaming of both Sutherlands by providing realistic and engrossing situations and dialogue. The two actors bring a certain emotion and pathos to their on-screen relationship that is obviously enhanced by their real-life status as father and son. The movie is also gorgeously photographed by Rene Ohashi and features a fine score by Jonathan Goldsmith. Perhaps because I've seen "Unforgiven" so many times and have written about it extensively, I may be more sensitive to the similarities between the films, which I did find admittedly distracting. More casual viewers will probably not encounter this dilemma and enjoy "Forsaken" for what it is: a superior entry in the Western genre.
The Blu-ray from Entertainment One features only one bonus extra: a "making of" documentary which consists of the usual bland observations by people who were interviewed while a movie is still in production. (Who is going to say anything negative when they have to still work with each other?) Although director Cassar and Kiefer Sutherland acknowledge they emulated the traditional Western film elements in the making of the movie, neither man comes clean by mentioning "Unforgiven" specifically, which is a little like ignoring the 800 pound gorilla in the saloon.
There have been a few effective "non-traditional" Westerns of recent vintage, "The Hateful Eight" being the most prominent but I would also highly recommend the Kurt Russell-starrer "Bone Tomahawk". However, if you have been starving for a Western that sticks with basic elements, this is the best I've seen in a number of years.