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
NEXT:
Stop and Go

Winter’s Tale


Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening.

Stopping by the woods on a snowy evening.

(2014) Romance (Warner Brothers) Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Will Smith, Mckayla Twiggs, Eva Marie Saint, Kevin Corrigan, Kevin Durand, Ripley Sobo, Graham Greene, Harriett D. Foy, Matt Bomer, Lucy Griffiths, Michael Patrick Crane, Brian Hutchison, Alan Doyle, Maurice Jones, Maggie Geha. Directed by Akiva Goldsman

It goes without saying that we don’t really understand how the universe REALLY works and we likely never will. Whether or not there’s an afterlife when we die or whether we just dissolve into oblivion is something we won’t find out until it’s our time to shuffle off this mortal coil.

Peter Lake (Farrell) is a thief and a good one indeed. He works for the Small Tails band, headed up by Pearly Soames (Crowe), a rough and tumble sort of fellow and they hold Manhattan in their thrall, circle 1912. However, Peter and Pearly have had a falling out, as it were and both being fine Irish gentlemen they mean to settle it the old fashioned way – by killing one another.

Peter knows that his opponent has the upper hand and it is only a matter of time before he is captured and killed. He needs to get out of New York but he needs to score enough cash to be able to survive. He doesn’t have much but he has a beautiful white horse that he found while being chased by Pearly and his thugs and that horse is absolutely special. In fact, it’s at the horse’s urging that Peter rob one final house, the house of New York Sun publisher Isaac Penn (Hurt).

The house appears to be deserted but it isn’t. Beverly Penn (Findlay), who suffers from terminal consumption, is home waiting to be well enough to head up to their lakeside country estate. Her fever is killing her and only cold weather can save her but soon even that won’t be enough. She interrupts Peter in his stealing and the two are instantly smitten with one another. Peter leaves, thinking that this house is a dead end for him literally but he can’t get the girl out of his head.

Neither can Pearly who has had a vision of a beautiful red headed woman. In fact, Pearly is a demon, one to keep souls from ascending to the heavens and becoming stars which is what happens when souls complete their work on Earth. Pearly means to shatter Peter by using the young Penn girl to do it and even if it breaks the rules as adjudicated by the Judge (Smith) he will get his vengeance. Peter will find a way to his destiny even if it takes a century.

This is based on the complex and what many considered to be unfilmable novel by Mark Halprin. I don’t know how closely this sticks to the book having not read it yet but judging from what I see here if the movie is any indication I can see where it got its reputation. The backstory is so complex and layered that the overall effect is that the movie becomes convoluted. While I kept up with the movie, I got the sense that there was a lot of things in the backstory that by necessity had to be glossed over and I was losing a good deal of the novel’s richness.

That isn’t the fault of the performers who are universally stellar. Farrell and Findlay make a fine on-screen couple while Crowe glowers with the best of them. Greene, Hurt, Smith and Saint all make what are essentially extended cameos and make the best of their abbreviated screen times. Connelly, as a modern reporter looking into what would be to anyone an astonishing story, is given little to do besides look concerned and bewildered.

Veteran cinematographer Caleb Deschanel beautifully captures New York City both old and new beneath a stark winter sky. This is a truly gorgeous looking film, and the story itself if you can follow it without getting completely lost is actually really affecting. Now some critics have been giving this a thrashing because they found it to be, as veteran Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers eloquently put it, to be preposterous twaddle. Now, I personally think this is unduly harsh. If you call the film preposterous twaddle, so too is the book on which it is based on and the Shakespeare play that inspired the book and while we’re at it, other literature and movies of a like nature, including Ladyhawke and The Princess Bride which are of a similar vein. From my point of view, we can all use a bit of preposterous twaddle every now and again. Keeps the soul honest.

This isn’t going to be making any ten-best lists at the year’s conclusion nor is it apparently going to be setting any box office records. This isn’t a good enough movie to get the kind of word-of-mouth that a movie needs to thrive these days, and let’s face it – romantic fantasies have a bit of an uphill climb because the audience that once craved them is now overserved with such tidbits as The Twilight Saga. However, I for one was enchanted by Winter’s Tale, flaws and all.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful story. Nice performances by most of the leads. Gorgeous cinematography.

REASONS TO STAY: Somewhat preposterous in places. A bit muddled.

FAMILY VALUES:  You’ll find some violence and some sensuality here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rhythm and Hues, one of Hollywood’s top effects companies, went bankrupt while in post-production for this film; Framestore was hired to complete the work that Rhythm and Hues had begun.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 15% positive reviews. Metacritic: 31/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Xanadu

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie