For a period of time in grad school the great Westerns of Budd Boetticher, Anthony Mann, Allan Dwan, and Raoul Walsh occupied a lot of space in my head. I was writing a script with a friend and we were looking at these films for inspiration. Nearly all of our conversations revolved around the tightly structured and economic narratives, and the subtle ways in which they created contained cinematic worlds where genre mythology was deeply rooted in the everyday lives of characters. We tried to write that kind of movie, but that kind of movie is really hard to write.
Maybe the best compliment I can pay to Old Henry (2021), a sturdy and restrained new oater directed by Potsy Ponciroli, is that it reminded me of those films and that time in my life. It begins with an armed man running through an ashen forest, a place that offers little signs of life and fewer places to hide. The camera stalks him from behind, and the sounds of horses can be heard in the distance. This cold open pursuit is a wonderful example of a filmmaker respecting the audience by avoiding exposition and using off-screen space to create tension. It sets the foul mood perfectly.
This is, after all, a film about what we don’t know, and can’t know until it’s too late. As the events of those early scenes spill over into the central story, that sense of mystery only deepens. In the rural territories of 1906 Oklahoma, one can sustain a level of anonymity by simply working the land. That seems perfectly fine with Henry (Tim Blake Nelson), a widower farmer who growls the cliff notes of his life in voice over while slaving away on a meager plot of dirt.
The cryptic context seems to be not just for the audience, but his boisterous and eager teenage son Wyatt (Gavin Lewis). Henry wants him to understand their family’s trajectory across America, how it navigated the old world and put down roots in this particular spot. But all the boy really wants is to shoot a gun an get out of Dodge. The history of the old West no longer holds the same sway it once did over the youth.
As with most Westerns, stasis of any kind is just a mirage, destined to be blown away by the coming storm of violence. Henry and Wyatt are thrust into just such a situation when they discover a wounded rider carrying a satchel of money. One of the film’s only funny moments comes when Nelson’s character sees the cash for the first time, emphatically saying “nope” and then walking away. It’s as if the man has lived through a hundred noirs and instantly knows the stakes. Still, that doesn’t stop him from turning around a few moments later.
Old Henry progresses slowly and methodically, leading toward a classic shootout that gains even more weight once the sins of the past are fully revealed. Nelson’s soggy sod of a lead performance is beautiful, a mash up of his classic hay seed archetype with the rage and precision of a natural born killer. It’s a showcase for one of our most underrated performers finally getting a part worthy of his skills. And Stephen Dorff’s equally bristled villain makes for a nice foil.
While it never reaches the esteemed heights of Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome, Mann’s Man of the West, or even Kevin Costner’s superb Open Range, Old Henry nevertheless is a worthy addition to the sub-genre of Westerns that feel like caged animals trying to escape. The men in these movies just want to forget how many they’ve killed and disappear into normal society. To be forgotten and live clean. But the stain of their legacy bleeds through any disguise.
Old Henry opens theatrically in select cities on October 1.
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