Old Henry


Tim Blake-Nelson takes aim at a career-changing role.

(2021) Western (Shout!) Tim Blake Nelson, Scott Haze, Gavin Lewis, Trace Adkins, Stephen Dorff, Max Arciniega, Brad Carter, Kent Shelton, Richard Speight Jr. Directed by Potsy Ponciroli

 

We are all of us haunted by the mistakes of our past. They keep us up at night, pondering “what if” (and not in an MCU kind of way) and praying that we can in some way protect those we love (particularly our children) from the repercussions of those mistakes. Eventually, we all must come to terms with those past mistakes. Sometimes, though, that reckoning is forced upon us whether we are ready for it or not.

Henry McCarty (Nelson) is an Oklahoma dirt farmer in 1906. His wife having died of consumption some years prior, he has endeavored to raise his son Wyatt (Lewis) alone, and not always successfully. Wyatt has reached that age where he wants to spread out his own wings, but Henry is steadfast about what he will and will not teach his son. Among the things he will not teach him is how to shoot a gun, a curious omission considering the time and place. All it does is drive the wedge between father and son further apart, which Henry’s brother-in-law Al (Adkins) who lives on a nearby farm, tries his best to referee.

When his father finds an unconscious man who has been shot with a wad of cash, his first instinct is to ride away and let things settle themselves without his involvement. Perhaps it would have been better for him if he had, but he can’t help but want to help out a stranger in need, so he takes the man – whom we eventually learn is Curry (Haze), a lawman whom has tracked down a group of bank robbers to the area.

But then comes a group of riders led by the garrulous Ketchum (Dorff), who claims that HE is really the lawman and he has been chasing a group of bank robbers led by Curry and he’d be much obliged if Henry would just turn over the fugitive to him. The trouble is, Henry is not sure which of them is telling the truth, so he lies to all of them, hoping to buy some precious time, which is the one thing he doesn’t have. And when Henry’s secret comes to light, it will affect everyone in the story in profound ways.

Like most Westerns, the cinematography (in this case by John Matysiak) tends to have an epic feel, even in the scrub brush of the Oklahoma panhandle. While much of the action takes place in Henry’s sod farmhouse, the dynamic between father and son is really the central theme of the film.

Nelson has tended to play comic relief and he is wonderful at it, but this is very much a different role for him and he responds with a performance that is going to have casting directors looking at him a lot more intently. His cold-eyed stare hints at a past that he would much rather forget, but the worn exhaustion speaks to the fact that it won’t let him. His relationship with Wyatt is strained; he tends to be the sort that brooks no nonsense, but doesn’t seem to understand that his son isn’t a child any longer and needs to be given the respect that 16-year-olds demand, whether they deserve it or not. Trace Adkins is fine, continuing his streak of appearing in every Western being produced in the 21st century.

There is a humdinger of a twist near the end of the movie that will answer the question about Henry’s sordid past and it is one you are unlikely to see coming unless you are a scholar about the Old West (and if you are, this might not be the movie for you). It is one that left my jaw flat on the floor, but felt absolutely perfect for the movie that preceded it.

I also have to say I love the tone here. It begins kind of melancholy, and evolves from there. It isn’t always easy to watch the dynamics between Henry and Wyatt. Any father (or son) will tell you that it hits uncomfortably close to home. But really, this is a high-quality magnificent entry into the modern western pantheon. It’s worth seeing just for Tim Blake Nelson alone, but also for a well-written script and a fairly bloody climactic shoot-out. A winner all around.

REASONS TO SEE: One of the best twists you’re likely to see. A tremendous, career-changing performance by Nelson. Nice tonal qualities.
REASONS TO AVOID: Moves a bit slowly at the beginning.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film made its world premiere at the prestigious Venice Film Festival this past September.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/5/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews; Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Unforgiven
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
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