Review: Old Henry is a story that challenges and hails Western conventions in equal measure | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Wednesday, October 27th, 2021  

Old Henry

Studio: Shout!
Director: Potsy Ponciroli

Sep 27, 2021 Web Exclusive
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Its violence is grisly and close quartered. Its father-son standoff proves not only heart wrenching, but the narrative heart of the movie. And its final-act twist is inventive enough to leave revolver-and-spurs stalwarts reeling with glee. All that and more make Old Henry the best revisionist Western since Unforgiven.

Tim Blake Nelson sheds the “aww shucks” camp that helped him steal every scene in the Coen Brothers’ Oh Brother, Where Art Thou and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs to star as the titular Henry here. Henry’s gruff scripture spouting and penchant for farm labor wear on his teen son Wyatt (a doe eyed Gavin Lewis, of Little Fires Everywhere and Prince of Peoria). Wyatt’s angsty because he’s the only boy in Tennessee farm country whose pa didn’t teach him to shoot. His aggravated boredom is upended when Henry finds a wounded man (Child of God’s Scott Haze) with a revolver and cash-stuffed satchel.

Henry’s overprotectiveness proves wise as bandits claiming to be outlaws endanger him and his recklessly inept son. They’re led by the loquacious Ketchum (Stephen Dorff, building on his career reviving character-actor momentum from True Detective’s third season). His use of a then state of the art long gun with a sniper-like sight, and his monologues preceding outbursts of violence, make Dorff a riveting villain. He’s rivaled, however, by Max Arciniega’s Stilwell, a bigotry enduring Mexican tracker whose knife throwing is as formidable as any firearm.

Nelson is a stark contrast to these opponents. He eludes Stilwell’s typically deft tracking in a high grass, vividly intense chase sequence that measures up to the finest of suspense thrillers. Nelson is an even better foil for Dorff, replying to one of the villain’s soliloquies with perfectly curt dialogue like: “You got the wrong pig by the ear.” And when their conflict brings Henry’s morally ambiguous past rearing, the movie thrilling tramples black and white hats tropes.

Some convoluted exposition and a fairly anticlimactic key shoot-out (at least in comparison to the white knuckle fights preceding it) slightly undercut Old Henry. It’s more modest than Unforgiven or The Assassination of Jesse James…in ambition, scope and especially budget (though it’s better than the latter). And yet, Old Henry nevertheless impresses with grippingly realistic action, performances snugger than the slugs these characters load into chambers, and a story that challenges and hails Western conventions in equal measure.

Most promising of all, however, is how writer-director Potsy Ponciroli breaks through on this project. Best known for comparatively forgettable fare like Still the King (2016) and Jay and Silent Bob Reboot (2019), his workman-like approach to Old Henry heralds a shining new talent.

Author rating: 9/10

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Average reader rating: 10/10


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