Nelson shines as ‘Old Henry’ revives the classic Western



Not rated. On VOD.

Grade: A-

Who doesn’t like a good old fashioned Western every now and then? “Old Henry,” a fine, boiled down, Sam Peckinpah-evoking example of the genre, even dares to rewrite the history books about an iconic outlaw.

When the action begins, we meet Henry McCarty (Tim Blake Nelson, also an executive producer), who is not particularly old. He’s digging rocks out of a trench on his farm in the Oklahoma territory in 1906. Henry’s adolescent son Wyatt (Gavin Lewis, “Little Fires Everywhere”) longs rather monotonously to leave the farm and see the world and get away from his overprotective widower father. Wyatt has never even fired a gun, which seems unlikely given the frontier setting and that his hulking Uncle Al (Trace Adkins) is an avid hunter. These men are in dire need of some women folk to keep them in line. The film begins with the sounds of insects and birds, and we know we are in a primal world of men, mud, chickens, horses and pigs that will eat anything.

Stephen Dorff in ‘Old Henry.’ (Photo courtesy Shout! Factory)

Meanwhile, three armed thugs on horseback track a man. The apparent leader of the armed men, the long-winded Ketchum (Stephen Dorff), tortures and hangs their captive. The three then set off after a second man. Henry finds this man, whose name is Curry (Scott Haze), wounded, near death and with a satchel of cash, after the man’s horse wanders to the farm. Henry takes the wounded man in to try to save his life. When the others arrive claiming to be lawmen, Henry is skeptical.

A fight will have to ensue if Henry does not let the strangers take the wounded man. The truth is Henry does not know who the good or bad guys are. Even Curry, who claims to be the real lawman, might be a killer. Henry has only his wits, which are a lot sharper than others suspect, and his fighting skills, which are also more potent than anyone knew. In fact, Henry may have a secret about his true identity.

Written and directed by Potsy Ponciroli (TV’s “Still the King”), “Old Henry” has limited settings and a small, all-male cast. But it makes the most of all of them.

Forty or 50 years ago, “Old Henry” might have been a Clint Eastwood film. Instead, it’s a Clint Eastwood film starring Nelson, a highly skilled character actor, who handles himself and his guns convincingly and has what it takes to play a lead role, especially in a genre film such as this. The film’s shootouts are very realistically staged and shot. Fighters spend as much time reloading as firing for a change.

Dorff is as impressive as Nelson as the sadistic and occasionally poetic Ketchum, a dangerous adversary with a keen eye. But it is Henry who is most fun to watch as he transforms from a Scripture-quoting Oklahoma farmer to a quick-drawing, hard-punching, dead-eyed gunfighter, a kind of Jason Bourne of the late-era Wild West. Western scholars might be disturbed by the liberties taken by “Old Henry.” But I had a blast.

(“Old Henry” contains graphic gun violence and torture.)

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