‘Forsaken’
Director:
Jon Cassar
Stars: Kiefer Sutherland, Donald Sutherland
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

“Forsaken” is an old school-style Western shot like a modern TV movie, with a sickeningly sweet score that sounds like it came from a ’90s Ron Howard movie. Given how patchwork it seems, perhaps it was inevitable quality would be all over the place, too. Attempts to be a slow burn thriller building to a climactic shoot-out are more “Back to the Future Part III” than “High Noon,” but smaller character moments are deeply, genuinely felt by the actors. To make things stranger, one of the actors doing fine is no less than Demi Moore.

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Kiefer Sutherland amps up his cigarette-stained voice as a gravelly ex-gunslinger named John Henry Clayton (who’s often simply called “John Henry” — no relation to the folk hero or the They Might Be Giants album). Returning home after the Civil War, which cured his yen for violence, he’s greeted by his disapproving pastor father (played by Kiefer’s actual dad) with a clipped, “Your mother is dead.” The good reverend never approved of his son taking up arms, and he doesn’t even want him to backslide when a group of ne’er-do-wells — led by a sweary Brian Cox, teasing a “Deadwood” retread that never quite comes — start killing locals for their land.

Improbably, “Forsaken” is the first time Kiefer and Donald Sutherland have ever shared scenes together, though both appeared separated in both “Max Dugan Returns,” the former’s debut, and “A Time to Kill.” This also marks Kiefer’s reunion with frequent “24” director Jon Cassar, which adds some meta fun: John Henry is the anti-Jack Bauer — a man who trying his best not to unleash his furious anger. He’s a familiar type: the taciturn badass wrestling with his innate fury, crippled by regrets and a life that in middle age has clearly been mis-spent. 

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Everything is hand-me-down, but Kiefer imbues his quieter moments with an agony that feels legitimate. Returning home means John Henry reunites with Moore’s Mary Alice, the one who got away, or rather the one he got away from, leaving her to wed a jealous scoundrel. Their scenes are steeped in deep pain that plays over sad-eyed faces struggling to look placid. Their melancholy may be partially informed by the actors’ bumpy careers — his a lot better than hers, even if his tabloid cameos are sometimes more fun. (Dig this video of him drunkenly leaping into a Christmas tree.)

Their subplot feels sincere; the drawn-out battle with Cox’s loose cannon henchmen plays like Western dress-up. Most of the supporting cast is hammy, and Cassar films everything in shakycam git-r-done shots that make everything feel cheesy and inconsequential. Even when it’s not cooking there lies bits of goodness, including a haunted performance by Michael Wincott as Cox’s hired hand: a gentleman with a waxed mustache who seethes as his partners-in-crime prove trigger-happy yet goes along anyway, as reneging on his contract would simply be gauche. His storyline has a nifty end, the one genuinely creative moment in a climax that’s pure stock. It’s also one of the few bits that betrays a real understanding of the moral gray area found in the best Westerns. For brief spurts “Forsaken” feels like the real deal and not just a copycat by people who’ve seen too many movies.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge