Directed by: Potsy Ponciroli
Cast: Tim Blake Nelson, Scott Haze, Gavin Lewis
It’s strange how much of a rush a film can give you when it suddenly connects itself to real life events, especially those of romanticized lore, catching up on the mystique that is the Old West and its elusive outlaws. Early on in Old Henry, writer-director Potsy Ponciroli informs us that his protagonist has a secret—one that not even his teenage son knows about. In 1906, a widowed farmer, Henry McCarty (Tim Blake Nelson), lives on his humble plot of land with his son, Wyatt (Gavin Lewis), who longs for adult responsibility. However, his father keeps a short leash on him, inexplicably not letting him fire a gun or ride off on his own outside of their farm. There’s also a trio of roughnecks, led by Ketchum (Stephen Dorff), on the trail of a man named Curry (Scott Haze) who’s taken something of theirs. Old Henry’s greatest achievement is how it finds such a large scope within the small, myopic nature of its plot: A wounded man is found shot, nearly dead, not far from Henry’s home. Near the body is a pistol and a satchel filled with cash. Henry brings the man into his home and attempts to nurse him back to health. Not long after, Ketchum and his men knock on Henry’s door to inquire about Curry’s whereabouts.
With Ketchum and Curry both claiming to be lawmen, Henry finds himself in the middle of a dilemma, not sure who to trust. But as we come to find out, trouble finds trouble. And as this story develops, we’re quickly able to telegraph the fun surprises in store. Classifying itself as an “action Western,” Old Henry may be selling the wrong feature. While the final shootout is gripping and relentlessly realistic in its depiction of the slowness of death and the resiliency of humans’ willingness to live, it would be a misdirect to market this film as action-packed.
This low maintenance Western gets handed the same genteel touch as last year’s First Cow, finding authenticity in its simplicity. Although, unlike First Cow and its humble, almost-square “Academy ratio,” Ponciroli and DP John Matysiak use a very wide aspect ratio (2.66:1), which broadens the horizon and heightens the tension during the several occasions when the villains approach from far away. Unfortunately, the beautiful scenery tends to get washed out with low contrast and overall flattened coloring.
Old Henry’s greatest achievement is how it finds such a large scope within the small, myopic nature of its PLOT.
Prior to any historical connection, Old Henry seems to be just another low-concept Western—simple, if not boring in its presumed blandness. But then secrets get unearthed, albeit gradually, and the movie recovers from a rough first act to really find its stride in the latter half.
Similarly, but not quite, to the 2010 drama Remember Me, which abruptly tosses in its polarizing twist at the very end, Old Henry rides on its otherwise-random hook and the story finds life because of it, even if it’s not always sustainable. At times failing to build up any poeticism with its extraordinary concept, the movie feels like it’s being dragged away from its inherent themes about retribution and regret in favor of a father-son motif that doesn’t completely get fleshed out.
Ultimately though, the hook gets complimented with moments of brilliant execution, such as the aforementioned shootout, a goosebumps-inducing reveal, and a meticulous pace that builds on an even keel. And it’s all tied together by a trifecta of reliable performances.
Old Henry is one of the rare films where the looks and personalities of the actors are just as crucial as their performances themselves. Nelson, who has found great success throughout his career in these dusty period pieces, is expectedly sturdy, even if not required to show a great deal of range. Dorff is as charming of a villain as ever, perfectly countering Nelson’s scraggly mien. Throwing a wrench in it all is Haze’s Curry. In-between two characters whose motives are fairly obvious despite their secrets, the actor does a great job navigating the complicated mind of his own character, whose ambiguity may just be the greatest source of tension we get.
Old Henry feels both big and small, important and invigorating, but also like it could use some more details to make it feel fuller. Fortunately, Ponciroli never loses his grip, even if he leaves some uestions unanswered. Still, the most interesting aspect of this story might not be the one told here at all. I have a feeling the events that took place 25 years beforehand would have made an even more compelling movie.