Tim Blake Nelson has been an established character actor for over 20 years, turning in small yet memorable roles in everything from superhero blockbusters (The Incredible Hulk, Watchmen ) to prestigious indies (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Lincoln). That’s why it’s so baffling to see Nelson finally take center stage in Old Henry, a bare bones western that gets to the heart of what makes the genre great.
The plot of writer/director Potsy Ponciroli’s feature is as simple as the weekly westerns that released in the 40s and 50s. Henry (Nelson) is an aging widower who tends to his son and his crops on a secluded farmstead. All is serene until Henry finds a gravely injured man with a satchel full of cash. But with that money comes greed, violence, and constantly shifting loyalties.
While the narrative might fit right into an old school John Wayne film, Ponciroli’s stripping down of the Western provides every tense moment an opportunity to enthrall and surprise. For instance, violence in this genre is usually focused almost exclusively on thrilling shootouts. While those are still allowed to occur, Ponciroli makes sure that the audience feels the impact and brutality of every gun shot and broken bone. As we glance away from the intensity of the bloodshed, it reinforces Henry’s hesitancy to engage with the rogue sheriff, Ketchum (Stephen Dorff).
What the back to basics format really does for Old Henry though is allow Nelson’s performance to radiate excellence. When we’re first introduced to Henry, there’s a worn, defeated look in his squinted eyes. With just a glance, it’s clear that Henry is a man who’s spent too long trying to forget the sins of the past.
However, once Henry finds the body and the associated loot, we see an instant shift. Henry moves methodically, with a spark that was absent not a moment before. His discovery was twofold; Henry not only found stability in the satchel of cash, but a renewed sense of purpose. All of this is communicated almost solely though Nelson’s body language, as Henry is the strong and silent type.
The layers of Henry’s trauma and regret that are built from Nelson’s performance closely mirror that of Clint Eastwood’s role as Bill Munny in 1992’s Unforgiven. Yet Eastwood had nearly thirty years of his cowboy persona engrained into Munny, while Nelson has only dabbled in the genre. The fact that both are on relatively similar footing is only testament to the verisimilitude of Nelson’s role.
Old Henry feels like the culmination of Tim Blake Nelson’s career as told by The Twilight Zone. How many more classic roles might Nelson have had over the last two decades if Hollywood took him seriously as a leading man and not a supporting utility player? If Ponciroli’s feature is any indication, he still has the potential to be a star in this late stage of his career.
The Silver Lining
Jamie Kirkpatrick’s editing ensures that Old Henry can keep up with Nelson’s awards worthy role. Kirkpatrick allows much of the film to remain a slow burn, giving the audience a chance to empathize with Henry and his son. However, once the action starts, Kirkpatrick starts using quicker cuts to mirror the intensity and frantic energy of the characters. It’s not easy to make a slow burn film feel like it speeds by, but Kirkpatrick’s pacing for Old Henry makes it look like child’s play.
Old Henry releases on Video on Demand (Amazon Video, VUDU, etc.) and in select theaters October 1st.