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

Jane Got a Gun


Jane takes aim at the industry suits who kept this film on the shelf for three years.

Jane takes aim at the industry suits who kept this film on the shelf for three years.

(2016) Western (Weinstein) Natalie Portman, Joel Edgerton, Noah Emmerich, Ewan McGregor, Rodrigo Santoro, Boyd Holbrook, Alex Manette, Todd Stashwick, James Burnett, Sam Quinn, Chad Brummett, Boots Southerland, Nash Edgerton, Robb Janov, James Blackburn, Nicoletta Chapman, Ricky Lee, Darlene Kellum, Lauren Poole, Kristin Hansen. Directed by Gavin O’Connor

When you are threatened, I think that most of us can pretty much take it. You can do what you want to us, but leave our families alone, right? When home and hearth are threatened, well, one has to make a line in the sand someplace.

For Jane Hammond (Portman), that line has been drawn. When her husband Bill (Emmerich) shows back home with bullets in his back, he tells her that he had a run-in with the Bishop Boys, a gang he once rode with and who Jane herself has a past with. Now they are coming. Jane could easily take her daughter and run, but she’s done that her entire life. She loves her home and will fight to defend it.

But she can’t do it by herself and Bill’s wounds are simply too severe for him to be much use in a gunfight, so she swallows her pride and enlists Dan Frost (Edgerton), the gunslinger who was once her fiance. While he was away fighting the Civil War, she had become disillusioned, believing that he had been killed in action. While on a wagon train headed West led by John Bishop (McGregor), she was saved from the proverbial fate worse than death by Bill, along with a daughter fathered by Frost that he never knew he had.

Now the past has caught up with her and Bill and only Dan can save them. Dan has issues of his own, many of them stemming with his treatment at Jane’s hands so he’s ambivalent about helping her out, but he can’t leave the woman he once loved in the lurch, even if he has to save the man she’s with now. So he calmly goes about the business of fortifying her home, knowing that the force that is coming at them may be greater than even he can save her from.

This is very much in the vein of typical “against the odds” Westerns along the lines of a High Noon in which a heroic figure is preparing for the arrival of an overwhelming force that is likely to kill them. Natalie Portman is no Gary Cooper, but she does topline the film nicely. When I heard she was doing this film, I wondered about the wisdom of casting her in this kind of role; after all, she’s one of the most beautiful women in the world and has the grace of a ballerina. Could she play a dirt farmer’s wife in the Old West? Turns out, she can.

O’Connor wants to make a traditional Western with a bit of a twist, putting Portman in kind of a heroic role. While Edgerton – who co-wrote the film – is ostensibly the hero, Portman steals the show but not to the same extent that McGregor does. With his shoe polish black moustache and coif, he looks the part of a Western villain, maybe to the point of self-parody. But he is certainly venal enough and his smooth words disguise lethal venom. It’s a terrific villainous role for an actor who tends to assay heroic roles more often.

The dusty New Mexico landscape is dry as a bone and makes for an appropriately desolate setting. I have to admit that while the movie is decently paced and doesn’t seem to have any extraneous material, the flashbacks are a bit awkward and the whole balloon ride thing was more or less unconvincing – you half expected to see them sailing for Oz.

The movie has largely been left to fend for itself, which is a crying shame. It deserved a better fate than it got from Weinstein and various distributors, directors and producers. Despite its checkered past in getting from script to multiplex, this isn’t a bad movie and while it isn’t the best Western out there, it is a solid entry into the genre which has received a welcome resurgence over the past several months. Movies like this are likely to entice even more viewers into the genre.

REASONS TO GO: Nicely paced. Acting performances are all solid.
REASONS TO STAY: Nothing here is particularly different and exciting. Derivative.
FAMILY VALUES: There are violence and language issues.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally filmed in 2013, the movie sat on the shelf for nearly three years due to several release date changes, the bankruptcy of Relativity Studios (who were originally to release it) and reported clashes between the distributors and producers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 33% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hannie Caulder
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Cinema of the Heart begins!