When casting a lead for a grim and gritty Western, it’s hard to think of a better choice than Tim Blake Nelson. Immense talent (and proven skill as a singing cowboy in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs) aside, he’s one of very few name-brand actors who convincingly look like they might actually belong in the hardscrabble world of the old American frontier, his weathered face able to hold countless survival stories. It’s Nelson who holds Potsy Ponciroli’s Old Henry together, a solid but generic western elevated by his mix of gentleness and gruff capacity for violence.
Nelson plays the Henry of the title, a widowed farmer with a dark gunslinging past but now just trying to peacefully get by in the largely untamed Oklahoma Territory at the turn of the 20th Century alongside his teenage son Wyatt (Gavin Lewis). His dull but safe existence is upended when a mysterious and badly wounded man called Curry (Scott Haze) shows up at his doorstep carrying a satchel of ill-gotten cash. Curry is followed by three sinister men claiming to be a local sheriff and his deputies, led by a classic ‘man in black’ in the form of Ketchum (Stephen Dorff), who doesn’t seem all that concerned by the law he’s apparently there to uphold.
Ketchum demands Curry and the bag of money, and it’s not long before a showdown becomes inevitable, and that’s about all the plot Old Henry has to offer. After all the introductions, it’s basically a waiting game until the climactic shootout, as the two sides sus one another out. Ponciroli keeps this slow burn mostly entertaining by gradually unravelling the back stories of both Henry and Curry, these revelations well-acted by Nelson and Haze, though the hazy flashback sequences leave quite a bit to be desired.
Ponciroli also makes sure that the explosive ending is worth the wait. The close-quarters fighting might feel a little airy, but the gunplay is thrillingly heavy and visceral. Every bullet carries a weight, each shot made all the more meaningful by Old Henry’s carefully considered commitment to accurate bullet capacities in all its guns. Characters constantly have to reload, a sweatily nervous process every time they refill their revolvers, not sure if their opponent still has a bullet or two left.
There’s little in Old Henry that will surprise you, and it doesn’t always make the best use of its leisurely pace (the relationship between Henry and his son is very thinly sketched throughout), but it should still satisfy any Western fans, even if its Deep South setting makes for a wetter and mistier backdrop than most of its genre stablemates. It’s a conventional tale, yes, but when you’re dealing with perhaps the most sturdily foundational genre in American cinema, sometimes all you have to do is play the hits.