“You don’t have to do this.”
“I know… but we both know I’m going to.”
Directed by Jon Cassar (24), Forsaken tells the story of John Henry Clayton (Kiefer Sutherland), a man who left the family plantation over a decade ago. Having built a reputation as a killer, John Henry’s return is less than celebrated, especially by his father, Reverend William Clayton (Donald Sutherland). Upon his arrival, he quickly discovers that the townspeople are being forced to sell their land to the powerful landlord and saloon keeper, McCurdy (Brian Cox). Although he seeks to repair his relationship with his estranged father, John Henry simply can’t outrun his past as the entire town fears–or awaits?–the fact that he could seek vengeance at any time.
After all their experience on 24, director Jon Cassar seems to know how to get the best out of the younger Sutherland. Even so, make no mistake, John Henry is no Jack Bauer. In Forsaken, Sutherland’s John Henry certainly has a history and, to steal from another film, ‘a certain set of skills’, yet remains conflicted about his past and has no desire to awake the beast within. (You know what? Maybe it sounds a little like Bauer…)
After the traumas of war and as a killer, John Henry has chosen a new path for himself and spends most of the film attempting to prove to his father, the townspeople, and himself that he is a changed man. (Having said this, it’s also interesting to note that most people throughout the film are simply waiting for his more aggressive side to awaken.) With this in mind, Kiefer’s ‘contained beast’ is counterbalanced well by his father, Donald, who plays a pastor who has never had an interest in violence. Donald’s experience and gravitas is exemplified in all his work and certainly remains on display here as well.
Spiritually, the film asks the question as to whether or not one can truly change. Having grown up in the home of a pastor, John Henry exemplifies the prodigal in many ways–yet his return is less about apologizing for his actions than it is about attempting to ‘make things right’. Interestingly, his desire to clear a field becomes a metaphor for his journey with his father. As John Henry digs up roots and clears away trees, we recognize that he slowly begins to do the same in his relationship with his father, turning barren wasteland into productive soil.
What’s more, John Henry even begins to rediscover his faith before things go awry. Despite his desire to do good, as John Henry finds himself resorting to violence, we sense what all the rest of the town feel as well–that this turn was inevitable. As a result, while John Henry has clearly become a man who remains committed to ‘doing good’, we are left with the question of whether or not he has fully changed in the end. This becomes the difference when considering what it means to receive forgiveness–do we truly allow the mind of Christ to penetrate our hearts with grace? Or do we attempt to justify our actions by doing what we feel is right? Forsaken examines this question quite well but doesn’t necessarily land where you’d like either.
Forsaken has the look and feel of a classic western, which is to its credit. Most interesting though is its exploration of the nature of redemption and escaping our past.
When it comes to trying to change ourselves on our own strength, oftentimes–just like Jack Bauer–the clock is ticking.
Starring Kiefer Sutherland, Donald Sutherland, Demi Moore
d. Jon Cassar
**** (out of 5)