It seems like everyone has been trying their hand at the pulp western lately, from Clint Eastwood with the uncharacteristically dull Cry Macho to Kevin Costner and Diane Lane in Let Him Go to all manner of handsome also-rans (Frank Grillo I’m sorry but I cannot take you seriously with that hair). Who would’ve guessed that a modestly successful one would finally come from a director named “Potsy Ponciroli?”
I’m not sure if having a writer/director named Ponciroli means that Old Henry counts as a spaghetti western, but Tim Blake Nelson is undeniably the best thing about it. From Delmar in O Brother Where Art Thou to Buster Scruggs in The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs, the Oklahoma-born Blake Nelson has long been Hollywood’s go-to guy whenever they need someone who looks and sounds authentically redneck (the fact that he’s a Jewish guy who studied at Brown and Juilliard notwithstanding).
Old Henry, set on an isolated homestead in the Oklahoma Territory in 1906, finally gives Nelson top billing, as a hardbitten, probably flea-bitten old son of a bitch, complete with droopy eye and pronounced limp, trying to raise a son alone on an unforgiving dirt farm. His son, Wyatt, played by Gavin Lewis, dreams of a more exciting existence, while Henry does his best to persuade Wyatt that hard work and the simple life are the keys to happiness — with methods of persuasion that include being verbally cruel and unrelentingly emotionally distant, with frequent corporal punishment. Imagine a cross between Will Ferrell’s “Gus Chiggins” meets Peter Stormare’s character in Fargo and you basically have Henry.
One day out in the scrub, Henry comes across a wounded man and a satchel full of cash, which he just knows are going to bring him nothing but trouble — mostly in the form of a verbose lawman played by Stephen Dorff, growling his many lines through a shark-toothed grin like he’s trying to sell us a poisoned e-cig (“wouldst thou like to vape deliciously?”). There’s a nice contrast between the authentically bleak setting and Tim Blake Nelson squinting and limping with a thousand percent commitment, and the naturally pulpy qualities of the story. Which is at its heart a schlocky shoot em up, albeit one with an admirable commitment to not revealing its secrets too early.
Delayed gratification can be so satisfying, can’t it? In that way Old Henry reminded me of Tom Hardy’s underseen pit bull adoption revenge movie, The Drop (a far superior dog-based revenge movie to John Wick, in my opinion) which similarly saved all its Hollywood magic for the final act, after meticulously building a sense of arthouse realism for the first two-thirds of the movie.
We know Old Henry has been keeping a big secret the entire movie and when he finally lays his cards on the table, it’s such a big swing narratively that I couldn’t help but be delighted. The realism sort of goes out the window and Old Henry is more a bubblegum action movie in western garb than the authentically dour western it masquerades as for two acts, but few actors could manage that transition from grounded realism to aspirational schlock better than Tim Blake Nelson. It’s like watching a flower bloom. A limping, squinting, flower with an accent that sounds like Gomer Pyle got kicked in the teeth by a mule. Old Henry probably won’t change your life, but it’s nice to see someone finally make the reasonably enjoyable lower-budget western than so many other filmmakers have attempted and failed.