CAST: Tim Blake Nelson, Scott Haze, Gavin Lewis, Trace Adkins, Stephen Dorff, Richard Speight Jr.
RUNNING TIME: 99 mins
BASICALLY…: A farmer (Nelson) runs into trouble when he takes in a wounded outlaw (Haze)…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Video-on-demand has certainly been a viable platform for much smaller films to find their audience, especially over the pandemic, and it has definitely helped Old Henry, the third feature by writer-director Potsy Ponciroli, from slipping into complete obscurity. After debuting to rapturous reception at last year’s Venice Film Festival, the film became a surprise sleeper hit on the American VOD circuit – where it lasted a good two months in iTunes’ top 10 movie chart – and even squeezed onto the National Board of Review’s top 10 independent movies of 2021. Now, it’s come to Sky Cinema as an Original Film here in the UK, but even then there has been a noticeably bigger push to promote it, partly because of its underground online success but also because, funnily enough, it is a pretty good movie.
Though not without a few missteps, Old Henry is a solid, gritty Western which plays around with a number of themes and even myths within the Old West, and ends up unearthing some legitimately unexpected surprises in a film that neatly hooks you in, and largely leaves you intrigued up until its final few frames.
Set in 1906, on an isolated piece of farmland in Oklahoma, we meet farmer Henry (Tim Blake Nelson) who lives a quiet and hard-working existence with his teenage son Wyatt (Gavin Lewis). Unlike his father, though, Wyatt isn’t content with living a life full of work and solitude, and does not see what old Henry gets out of this life. Their lives are interrupted, however, when Henry comes across a severely wounded man named Curry (Scott Haze) not far from his property, with a handgun and a satchel full of money in his possession; the farmer decides to take him back home and tend to his wounds, while keeping the gun and satchel hidden safely away. Unfortunately, Henry’s seemingly considerate act soon draws the attention of a small band of outlaws disguised as sheriffs, led by a ruthless man named Ketchum (Stephen Dorff) who wants both Curry and his loot. It is now down to Henry to protect himself, his son, and his new houseguest from the outlaws’ wrath, and in the process we learn that there is more to this simple farmer than we might have first thought.
For about the first two-thirds of the movie, things plod along nicely, but due to its slow-burn nature there is a distinct lack of urgency that prevents things from accelerating the way they perhaps should in a story like this. It is a well-made film, with both Ponciroli’s direction and the cinematography by John Matysiak maintaining a consistently watchable energy, and there are strong things to admire in the small details that the filmmaker chooses to hone in on. Most of the performances are also very good, with Tim Blake Nelson especially standing out as the title character (it’s certainly a far cry from his other notable Western role in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), while Stephen Dorff does intimidation pretty well as the ruthless bad guy. However, I’ll admit that for most of these first couple of sections I did find myself start to zone in and out, because there didn’t seem to be a whole lot else in this script, aside from the odd dialogue exchange, to entirely keep me hooked on this story. It doesn’t help that, for most of it, we’re forced to spend time with this Wyatt character who really does drag so much of the movie down with him; the character is written to be such a whiny, petulant adolescent who constantly does stupid things (leaving his blade by an unconscious, and most definitely dangerous, man’s bedside ranks high up there, as does wasting valuable bullets on target practice) that you just don’t care about this kid in the slightest. Gavin Lewis’ performance also isn’t that good, or at least in comparison to the other actors he’s appearing opposite, with his strained dialogue deliveries feeling just as out of place in this otherwise gritty and adult Western as his Disney Channel good looks.
But then, as if by magic, the film manages to pick up a hell of a pace in its third act. This is where Ponciroli really lets all his toys out of the box, and plays around with a number of familiar Western conventions to his benefit, with a climax that ranks high in both violence and general satisfaction. It heavily revolves around a twist which I honestly did not see coming, and is one that makes the rest of the film beforehand, even some of the more lagging parts, much more three-dimensional and interesting than they may have first appeared to be. Part of me wishes that they didn’t save some of this material until the final reel, because then the rest of the movie beforehand would have perhaps been more engaging, but the way it plays out is very well-paced, and adds a real sense of hard-boiled grittiness and even a mythical presence to the narrative. Once again, the filmmaking is spot on and gets you heavily absorbed into this third act, much of it also having to do with Tim Blake Nelson going full awesome in the most unexpected ways, making it almost like a Western version of last year’s action hit Nobody.
It’s because Old Henry ends the way it does that I’m suddenly more forgiving of its earlier flaws, since it makes sitting through stuff like an initial lack of hook and this aggravating Wyatt character feel just about worth it. Although you certainly have to sit through all of that BS just to get to the good stuff, there is a lot to admire about this movie as a whole, from its unexpectedly mythical status to the solid filmmaking and acting, which is rather strong and precise even in its less engaging moments.
VOD may have given it the necessary notoriety, but actually seeing Old Henry in action is something else entirely.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Old Henry is a mostly solid Western which makes up for a lagging first two-thirds with a surprising climax, which is where filmmaker Potsy Ponciroli brings out his big guns and adds an intriguing mythical edge to the mix.