Whether it’s the cowboys-and-Indians of the 1950s or the “revisionist” approach that has since come to define the genre, the Western is all about the persistence of legends.
Former pioneer Henry (Tim Blake Nelson) and his son Wyatt (Gavin Lewis) live alone on a remote farm. Henry is a gaunt, sallow cuss1 and Wyatt wants to escape from their hardscrabble existence, up at dawn to feed the stock and tend the crops.
One day, a horse arrives, riderless, with a smear of blood on the saddle. This leads Henry to a wounded man, Curry (Scott Haze), nearly dead in a ditch, and a purse of money nearby. Despite his better judgment,2 Henry rescues the man and salvages the purse.
Rather than just a belated, indie-budget version of Unforgiven3, Old Henry has been described by it’s writer-director Potsy Ponciroli as more specifically a “micro-Western”.
Before long, a trio of strangers, led by a supposed deputy, Ketchum (Stephen Dorff), in search of Curry, whom they claim is a wanted man. The strangers are outwardly courteous, but there’s an underlying threat to the interaction.4 However, unbeknownst to them, Henry is better equipped to defend his homestead than they might suppose.
Ponciroli’s script focuses commendably on just a handful of characters, mostly around the homestead; the subtle sense of confinement reinforced by his directorial use of frames within frames.5 This is contrasted by strategic use of wide shots, that capture the expanse of nature; autumn colours crisply captured by cinematographer John Matysiak.
Jordan Lehning’s sharp, elegiac string score lends a plangent quality to the material, a sense of an era coming to a close. Curry remembers witnessing the death of legendary outlaw Billy the Kid when he was just a child. Old Henry’s history is written in the scars that mark his body, scars he’s never hidden from Wyatt but won’t discuss with him; a backstory hinted at in old newspaper clippings6 and his acuity with firearms.
The shootout, when it arrives, is ingenious without being overelaborate; much like the film as a whole.
Old Henry‘s themes, such as the cyclical nature of violence, are hard-worn, but the impeccable craftsmanship in its making more than makes us for the sin of familiarity.
Old Henry is available to rent or buy now from Signature Entertainment and is due for release on Sky Cinema later this year.
- A far cry from his role in the Coen Brothers’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs.
- The jaundiced look he gives the purse and matter-of-fact “Nope” are eminently giffable.
- Though a shot of a picket-fenced grave and Tim Blake Nelson’s opening narration -“Finally I settled on the life of a farmer. Which is what I am – feels like a conscious homage.
- We’ve already seen them execute an unfortunate accomplice.
- One in particular recalls the famous shots that bookend The Searchers.
- References to the Lincoln County War.