Old Henry, 2021.
Written and Directed by Potsy Ponciroli.
Starring Tim Blake Nelson, Scott Haze, Gavin Lewis, Stephen Dorff, Trace Adkins, Richard Speight Jr., Max Arciniega, and Brad Carter.
An action western about a farmer who takes in an injured man with a satchel of cash. When a posse comes for the money, he must decide who to trust. Defending a siege, he reveals a gunslinging talent calling his true identity into question.
Tim Blake Nelson joins the ranks of Liam Neeson and Bob Odenkirk as bruiser geriatrics with writer and director Potsy Ponciroli’s Old Henry, a traditional Western that sees the senior citizen bearing arms and dispatching of henchmen in vicious ways. It’s also not just an exercise to give the actor a physically demanding leading role (after all, there are only a few sequences where the violent skillset comes out) but also a transformative one, as Tim Blake Nelson graces the screen with ghostly pale skin, world-weariness, and an eye that’s nearly permanently shut.
Backing things up a bit, Tim Blake Nelson’s eponymous Henry is not necessarily a killer. Instead, he has lived quiet farm life for years in Oklahoma (1905) alongside his young adult son Wyatt (Gavin Lewis) and brother-in-law Al (country singer turned actor Trace Adkins), who lives within the vicinity. A gravestone that Wyatt routinely visits also reveals that his mom died 10 years ago from tuberculosis. As a result, they simply exist, bothering no one and sticking to their crops. They have eked out about the closest thing to a peaceful life one could achieve during a place and time of gunslinging and thievery.
Wyatt is also increasingly growing disillusioned with the lifestyle, seeking an opportunity to get away as soon as possible, learning how to shoot, go hunting, and generally partake in the romanticized aspects of the Old West. Henry disapproves, uncomfortable even teaching his son how to use a gun. Even those unfamiliar with the Western genre already probably know why and where this is going. Still, giving credit to Old Henry, another revelation adds another layer to that plot dynamic. However, it’s not confirmed until so late in the story that it could be taken as a missed opportunity to really do something special with the concept.
Elsewhere, Stephen Dorff is the ruthless bandit Ketchum, leading a posse posing as law enforcement while enacting disturbing violence against an unknown individual. It’s clear that they are looking for something and will stop at nothing until they retrieve it, especially considering one of their targets has escaped and ran off. That person would be Curry (Scott Haze), who eventually passes out from sustained injury and is found by Henry. Again, this man is no amateur and has evidently been a part of several dangerous situations judging from the caution he employs when searching the body and digging through belongings to see what he is working with and get a better understanding of why this mysterious unconscious traveler is bleeding out.
After getting the passed out Curry situated and resting, Henry tells Wyatt to consistently apply pressure while heading into town to fetch a doctor. First off, this is a lie as Henry is really doing more reconnaissance, but naturally, Wyatt takes this as a chance to do some investigative work himself where he finds everything from guns to a large sum of money (we can piece together that’s what the bandits are after, even if it’s not yet clear if Curry is another criminal or a real sheriff). He also takes it upon himself to practice shooting the gun since his father will likely never open up to that bonding experience. It’s only a matter of time before Curry wakes up; the only question is whose side he will be on.
The only problem with Old Henry is that, while the film does have a pleasant look and satisfying bursts of violence in the second half, it’s predictable to a fault rather than turning conventions of the genre upside down. Most of it is all telegraphed and only becomes more obvious as further details and exposition come to light. That’s also a shame considering Tim Blake Nelson does bring a decent amount of depth to Henry as a man desperate to ensure that his son doesn’t go down the same path as him that he has never come clean to his son about. There are multiple moments where Henry refuses to show off his deadly marksmanship out of wanting to keep that life not only hidden from his son but repressed deep in his own soul as a former life he never wishes to go back to, even if it means endangering loved ones (Trace Adkins truly has a pointless role here).
Stephen Dorff is also menacing and despicable, expressing evil immediately. The friction between father and son is also fairly engaging to watch unfold. However, these decent ideas are all in service to a greater story idea meant to recontextualize that romanticism of the Old West and heroes of the age, yet never gets a chance to do so because it’s too often stuck in conventional gears of who is to be trusted and who Henry really is. Old Henry has a few too many blandly utilized old tropes mitigated by a killer precise must-see turn from Tim Blake Nelson.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]
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