Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | October 7th, 2021
Old Henry (Potsy Ponciroli, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.
The heyday of the Hollywood Western is long since gone, yet the genre remains, for better or for worse, a seminal one in its establishment of heroic and anti-heroic moral codes. The entire pantheon of DC and Marvel characters that so frequently grace our screens today owe a significant debt of design and character to the cowboys of yesteryear. And though our modern understanding of the 19th-century frontier is fortunately much more complex than it once was—recognizing both the racial and ethnic diversity of settlers so often whitewashed in movies and the pervasive genocide against Native Americans—the myth of the Old West gunslinger continues to inspire. Speaking only for myself, I find the stripped-down conflict of individual against civilization, or individual against demons external and internal, endlessly gripping.
Welcome, then, to Old Henry, a new film from writer/director Potsy Ponciroli (Super Zeroes), in which we meet, in the best tradition of the revisionist Western, one very compromised and complicated protagonist, Henry McCarty. A man of mysterious past and seemingly ordinary present, he now lives in the Oklahoma Territory of 1906, a restless teenage son (almost all grown), Wyatt, under his wing. A widower, he mourns his deceased wife (who died 10 years prior), keeping both her memory and her brother, his next-door neighbor, close. Played by Tim Blake Nelson (Just Mercy), Henry is weather-beaten, grizzled, scrawny and short of stature, hardly an impressive physical specimen, though he runs his farm (and his son) with a commanding presence. Soon he will be tested, and our impression will very much change.
Thanks to an opening sequence, we know what’s coming. There’s a bad guy, with a sheriff’s badge and two henchmen, on the loose, chasing treasure. He’s called Ketchum (Stephen Dorff, Embattled) and has a streak as cruel as it is greedy. He also has a superb tracker (Max Arciniega, Hard Luck Love Song) who makes it easy to find the men they’re after, one of whom they catch in the prologue. The other one Henry comes across first, after a riderless horse canters up to his homestead. Initially inclined to leave the near-dead body where it is, given that there’s a satchel full of cash next to him, inviting trouble, Henry allows his better instincts to take over and, despite his gut telling him not to, brings the wounded man back to his place, along with his money.
Wyatt (Gavin Lewis, In Searching), eager to see the outside world and chafing at his father’s controlling ways, cannot believe that adventure has come to his doorstep. When Henry goes for the doctor, Wyatt breaks into his dad’s room, grabs a gun for practice, and riles through a hidden chest. There, we see some clues about Henry’s past, should we have missed who he might be thanks to his name (don’t google it unless you want to spoil the surprise). More hints come after the wounded stranger, Curry (Scott Haze, What Josiah Saw), wakes up, he and Henry sharing stories that point us perhaps a little too directly in the right direction. Still, even though I had figured the riddle out well before its final reveal, I nevertheless enjoyed the gradual buildup. The eventual explosive shoot-out proves both emotionally and narratively cathartic.
We’ve seen this kind of cinematic treatment before, with Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Unforgiven perhaps the best example of it. Then again, it’s the template of so many previous Westerns, traditional and revisionist: a man tries to outrun/outlive his violent past, only to have it eventually catch up, forcing him to strap on his guns once more. Old Henry may therefore not offer much that is new, but it tells its story well, and features a great lead performance from Nelson, usually relegated to supporting work; Dorff, as always, shines in his own part. The early 20th century was a period where the cowboys of yore were dying out and/or being replaced by modern technology, and the film acts as an appropriate elegy for both its faded genre and that transitional period. Like Nelson, himself, it is well-worn, yet wears it well.