Someone asked me the other day when was the last time I’ve seen a good, or at least solid, western movie. After paining my brain, I managed to come up with The Wind (2018). Sure, I’ve since seen a few badly written, uninspired duds since (Apache Junction, Badland – I seriously had to look this up) but I’m actually a bit of a fan of westerns, kind of like the same way I am of those dark, brooding and foreboding indie horror films.
Oddly enough, the groundwork for that particular style of western was laid by the Italians – the late, great Sergio Leone himself in particular, with his Dollar-trilogy and, of course, most notably with his spaghetti frontier classic Once Upon A Time In The West (1968). Their wild west already happened 2,500 years ago and the experience showed.
Old Henry tries to follow in those illustrious footsteps. This is no polished, epic horse opera with hordes of cowboys and native Americans, mass shootouts, damsels in distress, pearly-white teethed heroes, and rowdy brawl-ridden saloons with corrupt town councils, shot in the valleys, movie ranches, and cardboard town stages within the Hollywood TMZ or hastily put together in its Canadian discount alternatives.
Written and directed by Potsy Ponciroli (Jay And Silent Bob Reboot, Ted K), and produced by his Nashville-based company Hideout Pictures, Old Henry is a ‘small’ production, a muddy, grimy and at times gory spectacle shot on location in Watertown, TN. People opened a drive-in cinema there in 2003, with a second screen added in 2005 – in a period of time that everybody else was folding it. But it’s still operating to this day and I wouldn’t be surprised if, aside from the proximity, the sheer balls of the people there somehow factored into the location choice.
Old Henry follows the fortunes of the titular character Henry (Tim Blake Nelson, Ghosts Of The Ozarks, Angel Has Fallen), a frail, weathered, and widowed farmer with a dark past, on his homestead somewhere in the lonely prairie in Oklahoma Territory around 1906. He still fathers his rebellious teenage son Wyatt (Gavin Lewis, In Searching, Maximum Ride) there and he gets some occasional assistance and support from his neighboring kind-hearted brother-in-law Al (Trace Adkins, The Desperate Riders, Hickok).
Old Henry opens with an unnamed man, who’s chased at gunpoint by three horsemen led by Ketchum (Stephen Dorff, Blade, Leatherface). As per usual, there’s ill-gotten money involved between them, and the man, once caught, is violently interrogated, then brutally strangled and subsequently strung up. Another man, fleeing in the distance, is shot by them but somehow still manages to escape their capture.
After this violent opening sequence, we’re introduced to Henry as he’s working his land and butchering a pig, assisted by Wyatt and Al. Prompted by a stray horse with a bloodied saddle, the wounded man is later found in near-death condition in a creek bed by Henry, along with a duffle bag full of money. Smelling trouble, Henry prefers to just leave the scene, and the man to die, but he reluctantly decides against his better knowledge to save his life instead and take him home and tend to his wounds.
It doesn’t take long for Ketchum, introducing himself as sheriff, to come visit Henry and inquire after the whereabouts of the wounded man, named Curry (Scott Haze, Only The Brave, What Josiah Saw), who Ketchum claims falsely poses as a sheriff. Of course, Curry, once he’s come to, claims the exact opposite. Henry, wanting more than anything to be left in peace and stay out of trouble, brushes Ketchum off by saying he’s never seen anyone, but he meanwhile keeps Curry restrained until he knows what he’s gotten himself into.
From here on out, the film evolves into a western-styled mystery thriller, with the wary but fearless and resilient Henry nolens volens in the middle of it. Who’s telling the truth, what’s the deal with Henry’s haunting history, and will he come to terms with it, and will he stand his ground against Ketchum – and I’m not spilling any beans by divulging that a showdown between the one another is imminent and inevitable.
The story is not a complicated one and has a cliché or two, but Ponciroli captures it well, supported by a wonderful sound design. His panoramic shots of the rolling landscape are hued with sandy greys, and inside the house, he frames the scenes carefully. Here, a wooden stretcher with a blanket is as comfortable as it gets. But Henry is fine with this. Life on his farm means grinding and toiling, day in day out, and whoever’s there has to pitch in – something Wyatt, failing to see the perspective in it for himself, resents.
Wyatt hurts his feelings more than once with his reproachful remarks about this, but Henry has seen enough in life – even though at this point we don’t know what that might have been – to find redemption in feeding Wyatt, teaching him the fine art of self-sufficient farming and shielding him from the menaces of the outside world.
This is also his big motivator to withstand Ketchum and his two enforcers. Henry doesn’t really care about Curry, but he will do whatever it takes to protect his son. Ketchum senses there’s more to Henry than just a simple farmer; he remains unfazed by his intimidations during a few tense meetings. Old Henry is a simple but well-written story, infused with dialogue that’s sparing and marked by carefulness, sprinkled with archaisms that lend a degree of period-correct authenticity to the already unembellished portrayal of affairs, and with minimal oral exposition. My tolerance for talky movies is pretty low, and Old Henry never made me even think about looking for the fast-forward button.
The film unfolds in a deliberate rhythm, in alignment with Henry’s life as a farmer, but as tensions with Ketchum rise, so does the pace. Violence comes swift and brutal, and thankfully the film pulls no visual punches here. Ketchum is a ruthless killer with a gentleman-like veneer, and Dorff is a capable actor who’s having a blast with his portrayal, but he remains a one-dimensional stereotype of a villain.
If I had to level one criticism at Old Henry’s script: this feels like a missed opportunity, by not imbuing Ketchum with more ambiguity and giving him the same layered complexity as Henry. In a microworld where the law was tenuous on the best of days, and right or wrong and good or bad usually come packed in a round brass casing, Ketchum could have been the good guy gone bad, as much as Henry is the other way around. Be kind of his yang to Henry’s yin if you will.
With its small cast, acting in Old Henry ranges from okay to exceptional. Dorff is doing what he can with what he’s given to work with and does it well. Even Trace Adkins (of Honky Tonk Badonkadonk fame) turns in a serviceable performance, even though his screen time is fairly limited and his character doesn’t really amount to much. Haze and Lewis are okay, if unremarkable, as are the rest of the few supporting cast members.
But it is Tim Blake Nelson who takes front and center stage with his method-acted rendition of Henry. He’s so completely immersed in his character that I was having a hard time even recognizing him behind that drooping, weathered face and he’s reported to have taken almost a year to fully prepare himself for this role. This is as far away removed from a phoned-in, cue-card aided performance that we see all too often as it can be, and once the Oklahoman prairie dust has settled it’s Nelson’s portrayal of Henry that you will remember this film by.
The third act of the film plays like an old-west-prairie version of Assault On Precinct 13, as Ketchum and his henchmen besiege Henry, who’s holed up in his home with his son and Curry. Old Henry’s big reveal comes around in the film’s finale, and Ponciroli kind of makes a big deal out of this but I’m pretty sure anyone with half a clue about American lore and history will see it coming from a mile away. Still, it wraps everything up in a dramatically satisfying manner. Whenever you’re up for a gritty, unromanticized, suspenseful and occasionally gruesomely violent western movie after an overload of mind-numbing drivel, find Old Henry and press play.