Thursday, December 30, 2021

"Old Henry": review

[This movie contains a major reveal that is essentially the story's punchline and absolutely cannot be spoiled. I will therefore do my best to make this a spoiler-free review.]

2021's "Old Henry" is written and directed by Potsy Ponciroli (what a name! he's also known for "Jay and Silent Bob Reboot" and "Ted K," a story about the Unabomber) and stars Tim Blake Nelson as the title character. Nelson had recently starred in the Coen Brothers' "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," and he was somewhat concerned that people would too closely associate his role in that Western with his role in this one. In terms of mannerisms and demeanor, though, the characters of Buster Scruggs and Old Henry are diametrical opposites, so there's nothing to confuse.

Old Henry (Nelson) ekes out a simple existence on a quiet farm in the very early 1900s. His wife died of tuberculosis years earlier, and Henry's only remaining family are his son Wyatt (Gavin Lewis) and his brother-in-law Al (Trace Adkins, country singer, and not a bad actor). A riderless horse wanders onto Henry's farm one day; the horse's saddle has blood on it, and Henry goes alone to trace where the horse came from. Henry finds a man near death; he takes him back to his homestead, and he and Wyatt begin to nurse the man back to health. The man has a gun and a bag full of money, and when he's well enough, he reveals his name to be Curry (Scott Haze). Curry claims to be a lawman, and he tells Henry he's being chased by three outlaws whose leader is Ketchum (Stephen Dorff, the baddie from the first "Blade" movie). Ketchum and two henchmen appear on Henry's farm, claiming to be lawmen looking for Curry and accusing Curry of pretending to be a lawman.

How this tension plays out, and who everybody really is, is the subject of the rest of the film. Certain elements of the story are predictable as they follow several of the standard storylines associated with Westerns and other action films. Wyatt is a young teen who's entered the rebellious phase; he wants to shoot a gun and ride far on hunting trips, but he has no real appreciation for who his father is and what Henry has done. Curry has certain memories from his past that he vaguely begins to associate with Henry, who seems more and more like a familiar face, and Henry has a reputation that's known widely enough for even "Sheriff" Ketchum to have noticed. The image of the old gun who has to fight one more time despite his misgivings, and of the son who finally learns something new and important about his father, are both fairly go-to Hollywood tropes.

Tim Blake Nelson has defied Hollywood convention to play a scruffy leading man here, and Nelson's acting basically carries the film. All the supporting actors are excellent in their particular roles, but Nelson is the focus of the movie, and our engagement with the story deepens as we find out more about Henry and his dark past until the reveal near the end blows everything wide open. The role of Henry could have gone to a slightly younger Clint Eastwood, but Nelson takes the part and makes it his own.

The film's cinematography is less interested in giving us wide vistas of farmland than in showing us the intimacy and loneliness of farm life, and while the film's pacing is occasionally slow, the story moves forward at a steady enough clip to keep us from getting bored. The slowness actually works in the film's favor because it allows for the building of tension that leads us to the story's violent third act. Granted, violent third acts are a dime a dozen in Westerns, but the violence here feels earned, not gratuitous.

I hadn't heard any buzz about this movie; I merely watched the preview trailer and found the trailer compelling enough for me to want to purchase the film on iTunes. It was a worthy purchase, as it turns out. Watch "Old Henry" with my enthusiastic blessing.

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