The classic western is back. Old Henry marks an unassuming return for Tim Blake Nelson, who clearly impressed during his turn in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. This time, he plays Henry – the eponymous farmer, scratching out a living with his son and his pigs in 1906. Nelson was born for this role, trudging around his farm in this creaky, well-worn western. We’ve seen it a dozen times before – a quiet man besieged by outlaws, turning to his gun to defend the homestead. There’s absolutely nothing new about Old Henry. Where recent westerns have tried to reinvent the genre or bring something new to the frontier, Old Henry succeeds in doing the exact opposite. It’s a homage to the westerns of old, played straight, and it’s a bloody good one at that.
Director Potsy Ponciroli is clearly a fan of the genre. The look and feel of Old Henry is as authentic as it gets. Henry’s well-worn ranch is familiar territory as the man and his son work the unforgiving Oklahoma wilderness. “Don’t it ever bother you that sometimes they eat their own?” asks his son, Wyatt (played by Gavin Lewis). But you get the feeling Henry has seen far worse.
Beneath Henry’s humble exterior, something lies dormant – a former life that’s hinted at with his personal stash, hidden behind a wooden panel in the farmhouse. A six-shooter and some news clippings are all that remains. But cowboy fans will instantly recognise this legend laid bare. Henry may have managed to leave the past behind him, but his old ways are about to come in handy. A wounded young man and a satchel full of banknotes screams trouble. And as Henry hauls him back to the ranch to save his life, it looks as though there’s trouble in them there hills – with a posse in hot pursuit of the man he just saved.
Curry, played by Scott Haze, claims to be a sheriff who’s been injured by bandits after nabbing their hard-earned loot. But there’s a problem – the black-hatted gang of possible outlaws claims to be on the right side of the law. Its leader, played by Stephen Dorff, claims he’s the real sheriff. Of course, Henry isn’t interested, not really – he just wants him and his son to get out alive. But with no idea who to trust, it looks as though the pair are now caught in the middle of a stand-off with each side literally gunning for the other. It’s time to reach for their rifles… and there’s only one way this is going to go down.
Old Henry is an incredibly well-made film, with ample room for Tim Blake Nelson to revel in the subtle moments that tell a lifetime of story in a simple action. The effortless reloading of his revolver is like watching a master at work. And it tells you everything you need to know about Henry’s former life. Of course, as Henry protects his besieged ranch, it becomes clear he’s no ordinary farmer. But while one of the ‘sheriffs’ recognises him from days past, Henry is keen to play it down. “You got the wrong pig by the ear,” he claims.
Nelson’s ability to enrapture an audience with his delivery of old-timey dialogue is unmatched, whether it’s quoting scripture or just dispensing his own brand of frontier wisdom. And director Potsy Ponciroli treads the well-worn cliches of the wild west with an eagerness that has to be admired. Old Henry is every bit an old western, with a mysterious stranger, a corrupt lawman and the old rancher who’s forced to fend for himself. It may not bring anything new to the table, but where Old Henry treads old ground, it does so well enough to keep you lassoed to your seat.