OLD HENRY – Review
The classic Western rides again, with Tim Blake Nelson playing a quiet widowed farmer with teen-aged son on a hardscrabble Oklahoma farm, who takes in a wounded man found with a bag full of money and soon finds trouble follows. Writer/director Potsy Ponciroli’s low-budget indie Western action film OLD HENRY sports a much better than expected cast, and is elevated greatly by Tim Blake Nelson in a rare lead role.
OLD HENRY evokes classic Westerns, with its tale of an aging widowed farmer with a teen-aged son, defending his homestead when a group of armed men come looking for the wounded stranger they took in, and the bag of loot he had with him. Both the stranger and the men who have come looking for him claim to be lawmen, leaving the farmer to decide who to believe. But this farmer proves to have both more determination and surprising skills once the shooting starts, raising questions about his identity.
It is the classic lone man against many Western. In 1906 Oklahoma, Henry (Nelson) and his son Wyatt (Gavin Lewis) are working their little farm alone, struggling to get by without the help of a then-new invention, a tractor, but with a little help from the farmer’s late wife’s brother Al (Trace Adkins) who has the neighboring farm. Young Wyatt is itching to go off and leave farming behind, and chaffing under his stern, Bible-quoting father’s over-protectiveness. When the farmer spots a rider-less horse with a bloody saddle wandering onto his property, Henry feels bound to investigate. In an nearby creek bed, he finds an unconscious, nearly-dead stranger with a bag full of cash. Old Henry knows it is trouble as soon as he sees that money and his initial impulse is to walk away. Instead he slings the unconscious man across his saddle and brings the wounded man and the bag of loot back to his homestead.
Back home, Henry quickly hides the loot. He tends to the stranger’s wounds with skill but ties him to the bed, showing a level of wariness that surprises his son. When the wounded man, Curry (Scott Haze) awakes, he tells them he is a lawman but Henry remains suspicious. Soon a posse of three men show up, led by a man named Ketchum (Stephen Dorff) sporting a badge, and also claiming to be lawmen, looking for the wounded man.
Earlier violent scenes have raised our doubts about the claims of Dorff’s Ketchum and his companions Dugan (Richard Speight Jr.) and a Mexican tracker named Stilwell (Max Arciniega) to be the law. But it is the farmer’s cool, steely nerves and skilled response suggesting a hidden past that really intrigues. When the shooting inevitably starts, Henry’s skill with a gun raises questions about who he really is.
The heart of the film is about the father and son, although there is plenty of action too. There is a lot of classic Western here, including the combination of gruffness and tenderness in the father-son relationship and the son challenging his underestimated father, but also a touch of “a special set of skills” contemporary action thriller. However, it takes awhile for director Ponciroli to get around to the action, despite the film’s fairly brief running time.
The story is set in Oklahoma but looks more like Tennessee, where it was actually shot. It is not the usual movie image of Oklahoma’s dry grassland plains, although eastern Oklahoma is a likely match. The director reportedly found this location in Watertown, Tennessee, and was taken with how hidden and forlorn the old homestead looked, and took the location as the inspiration for the story. However, the writer/director decided to relocate the story in Oklahoma. Mismatched location aside, the cinematography by John Matysiak is strong, effectively giving a sense of isolation to the farmstead and a kind of rough beauty, while the costumes and production design gives the proper period feel.
The director seems to go out of his way to make the slight Nelson look even smaller, with an over-sized hat and casting a young actor as his son who fairly towers over him. It just sets up the audience to further underestimate the quiet unassuming farmer before the fireworks begin. Once unleashed, Nelson is masterful in the shootout sequence against the even-larger group that eventually shows up to the fight, surprising his son most of all.
What is not surprising is that Tim Blake Nelson’s performance makes this film, supported well by Stephen Dorff as the principle baddie and the other cast members. A long-time character actor, whose breakout role in the Coen brothers’ O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU brought him a level of stardom, Tim Blake Nelson truly delivers in this too-rare lead role.
OLD HENRY opens Friday, Oct. 1, at theaters in select cities.
RATING: 3 out of 4 stars