“Old Henry” – There will definitely be blood [MOVIE REVIEW]

Tim Blake Nelson as Henry in "Old Henry." Photo courtesy of Shout Studios.

Tim Blake Nelson as Henry in “Old Henry.” Photo courtesy of Shout Studios.

Tim Blake Nelson, always the bridesmaid never the bride. Well put that to rest because “Old Henry” gives him the lead that he has always deserved and carry this film he does.

I love a good western and thanks to Tim Blake Nelson, writer/director Potsy Ponciroli has given us one. Nothing in Ponciroli credits would lead anyone to believe that he had this in him.

An homage to westerns past and conflicted heroes of any era, “Old Henry” focuses on character, a rare feat these days. The story of “Old Henry” is primarily about a widowed farmer trying to raise his son in a righteous manner atoning for a hidden past. Bible-quoting and hard-working, Henry keeps his head down and tends to his fields. But his seemingly mundane world is uprooted the day a stray horse with blood on its saddle wanders into his yard. Much like if there’s smoke there’s fire, if there’s blood there’s a victim and he sets out to solve the mystery. Finding a man near death in the fields, he brings him back to the farm. What he found with the gravely wounded man, a satchel full of money, leads to more questions than answers and propels Henry and his teenage son into a maelstrom of trouble when a sheriff and his men land on his property looking for the severely injured man and that pack.

Stephen Dorff as Ketchum in “Old Henry.” Photo courtesy of Shout Studios.

Who is good? Who is bad? What is real? What is false? And most importantly, are there any absolutes at all because, with the exception of Henry’s son Wyatt, no one, especially Henry, is who he says he is.

Violence was as endemic to the era as it is in this film and the blood flows ceaselessly but never gratuitously. Grittily filmed on the brush covered plains in a Tennessee location standing in for the pre-statehood Oklahoma Territory, Ponciroli knew what look he wanted and John Matysiak, the cinematographer, delivered.

The surprising twists in the narrative are deftly handled and are too important to spoil in a review. Suffice it to say that you are never on totally level terrain and the occasional suspension of belief, always necessary in shoot-outs, is worth it.

This remarkably deep film about value systems, loyalty, betrayal, and most importantly identity is helped enormously by most of its cast. Gavin Lewis as Wyatt, Henry’s son, is the least credible in the outstanding gathering of character actors. His wide-eyed incredulity to what is happening around him is a bit too disingenuous.

Scott Haze as the wounded mystery man found by Henry in the fields shape-shifts realistically at every turn. Good guy? Bad guy? Liar? Straight-shooter (in multiple senses of the word)? He carries it off. Richard Speight, Jr. and Max Arciniega are suitably menacing as the “sheriff’s” deputies. As the sheriff, Stephen Dorf finally has a film role that lives up to the promise one felt was always there but obscured by most of the film roles he chose (or were offered) such as  “Leatherface” and “Jackals.” He has been more successful in television (“True Detective”) but never the star that his name recognition would suggest. As “Sheriff” Ketchum he is charmingly menacing until he loses the charming. A true adversary, his performance fuels that of Henry.

Tim Blake Nelson as Henry in “Old Henry.” Photo courtesy of Shout Studios.

And then there’s Tim Blake Nelson as Henry. A stolid appearance with hidden depth that has allowed him to live his life in a certain moral decency with a hard scrapple work ethic, Henry is a deep well of previously unsuspected contradictions, all of which will be revealed in his encounters with the mysterious stranger he rescues and the band that is on his trail. Nelson is a marvel at the look that reveals everything and nothing at the same time. The classic character actor, Nelson has always been the supporting actor who enters the stage, steals the scene, and disappears into the night. The Coen Brothers have always known this about Nelson who enlivens every scene he’s in. The quintessential character actor, “Old Henry” gives him the lead upon which every other performance hinges and the plot must turn. He does not disappoint. In convincing Nelson to take this role, Ponciroli chose well. Nelson, an executive producer of the film, knew a good thing when he saw it.

Opening Friday October 1 at the Monica Film Center.


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