There have not been too many Westerns reviewed for The Legionnaire. Off hand, I cannot think of a single one. I have no good reason for that beyond mere oversight, I suppose. It is a sub-genre of film that has never particularly interested me as they tend to be formulaic. Today’s film, Forsaken (2015), is no different. It has all the familiar tropes you expect if you are familiar with the cinematic tales of the Old West. Furthermore, no one has suggested any Westerns that I can think of until this one, though I think this has much to do with there not being too many made these days. They were played out by the 1970s, and the film under discussion today is as tired as the rest of them, with an added layer of dumb to boot (pun intended).
In Forsaken, John Henry Clayton (Kiefer Sutherland) has returned home, finally, from fighting the Civil War. If you have seen this movie somehow already, or decide to watch it, you will know how confusing is this statement. You see, everyone, from his father Reverend Samuel Clayton (Donald Sutherland) to his old flame Mary Alice Watson (Demi Moore), constantly wonder why he did not return home after the war. It is repeated to the point of being laughably annoying, and each time it is said I could not help but say in increasingly exasperated tones, “It is after the war!” I guess they do not know how time works in this world, though I get that they wish he had come back sooner. The other rehashed, over and over, aspect of John Henry’s character is the fact that he is a killer. During his wanderings proceeding being discharged from the army, he had killed a few men who picked a fight with him, but in the process had accidentally shot a young boy who died. As a result, he has decided to put away his guns and return to his father’s farm. He does so even though there is a gang in town led by James McCurdy (Brian Cox). McCurdy is some kind of real estate mogul, and he has hired a group of men with lots of weapons and low moral standards to intimidate local folk into selling him their land. It is never explain why he is doing this, he is just a bad guy. Oh well, I guess. When John Henry shows up in town, there is some consternation over whether or not he will be a problem for McCurdy because Reverend Clayton is one of those opposing the gang’s tactics. John Henry does not care for them either, but neither is he wanting to return to a life of violence, even when they beat him up at one point. For the most part, McCurdy’s actions go unchecked until one of his idiot men decides to knife Reverend Clayton in the back. Feeling like that they had crossed a line, John Henry takes up his Colt pistol, borrows a LeMat (look it up), and proceeds to murder McCurdy and all his men. Despite the fact that there does not seem to be any law in town and its citizens did not care for McCurdy, John Henry decides he must depart once more. There is a useless voice-over as he rides away explaining how he became a rumor, returning to visit his father every once in a while.
Because there were a lot of aspects of Forsaken that did not make sense, it ruined for me a film that had a lot of other stuff in it that I should like as a Catholic. Take, for example, John Henry’s commitment to pacifism. The Bible does tell us that we should turn the other cheek, and as such I admire his not responding in kind when he is beaten up, if not so much the inaction of the other townsfolk who witness the attack. Yet, all this is thrown out the window when he decides to avenge his father, even though the elderly gentleman does not die and apparently lives several more years. Further complicating matters is the fact that Reverend Clayton tells his son not to do it, and had earlier said a Federal Marshal was on the way. Moments like these take away from the message of redemption. There is a beautiful scene where John Henry sits in the church praying, despite previously saying that he did not believe God existed. He is haunted by the death of the boy he had accidentally killed, and there is a great moment of healing when Reverend Clayton walks in and he breaks down in his father’s arms. Praying, like crying, is catharsis, and a necessary part of getting over most trauma. When you pray about such things, you let God carry it, who is much more capable than any of us in dealing with such burdens. When Reverend Clayton walks in, it is an immediate answer to that prayer too, a sort of angel sent at the exact moment he is needed. We should all be thankful for those moments. However, all this progress is wiped away when John Henry takes up his guns.
Aside from not following through completely on the premise, Forsaken is bloody and contains some foul language. One last piece I would like to mention is Reverend Clayton’s clothing. Hollywood seldom seems to know how to handle Protestant preachers. I suspect that they fear that if they dressed them how they actually looked, audiences might say, “Hey, why is some dude up there talking about God?” I wonder if my Protestant brothers and sisters are ever perturbed by their preachers looking vaguely like priests in films and television shows? I hope not as this movie demonstrates that we share similar views, even if they cannot get the look of their reverends correct. Please do not take this as a recommendation to see the film, more like a fun fact.