‘Old Henry’ Review: Tim Blake Nelson in His Ultimate Noble-Hick Performance

But Henry, though he looks at the cash and first says "Nope," has an instinct to protect him. "Old Henry," written and directed by Potsy Ponciroli, is a slow-burn Western that sets up Henry against this crooked, remorseless trio. It’s all triggered when young Wyatt happens upon a riderless horse with blood on its saddle. Henry, going out to investigate, discovers a satchel full of cash and a man who’s been shot in the chest, Curry (Scott Haze), who he brings back to the farmhouse. He’s not scared. As he sets about doing that, we start to notice something about him. The villains want to kill this fellow too.
Here’s what elevates this one. But Henry McCarty, the scowling and taciturn farmer Nelson plays in "Old Henry," isn’t someone we’re laughing at. Most of the backwoods turns on Nelson’s resume have been unabashedly comic. He’s also not someone to mess with. He knows these characters are funny, and he’s not shy about playing to the peanut gallery. He’s got a sneaky gravitas.
The film opens with a burst of violence: a man is running away from three killers, and before long they shoot him down — and then Ketchum, the leader, having squeezed all the information he can out of him, strangles him with a rope, mostly for the fun of it. Stephen Dorff, who is such a good actor, plays Ketchum as a stone sociopath with a broad condescending grin. (He, too, likes to chew on big vocabulary words.)
He has done variations on this role in films from "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" to "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," and the thing about it is that each time Nelson goes Full Hick, you don’t feel like he’s acting; you feel like he just is. In truth, he’s acting up a storm, never more so than in "Old Henry," in which he gives what I can only call the "Citizen Kane" of Tim Blake Nelson hayseed varmint performances. Tim Blake Nelson is a highly skilled and versatile actor (not to mention a terrific director), but for years now there has been one character he owns: the yokel, the snaggletoothed redneck runt, the leering hillbilly bumpkin who never met a big vocabulary word he didn’t like to chew on like tobacco.
"Old Henry" is set in Oklahoma territory in 1906 (Nelson, in fact, is from Oklahoma), and Henry is a widower who lives with his teenage son, Wyatt (Gavin Lewis), in a shabby comfortable gray farmhouse that sits at the bottom of a sloping field. But Wyatt is underestimating Henry too. Nelson sports a long mustache that slopes into his stubbled cheeks, greasy hair that hangs flat, with a dirty white shirt under his suspenders and, at times, a hat that threatens to swallow his head. When we first see him, we’re cued to underestimate him, because he looks so mangy. He thinks they’re stranded in the middle of nowhere (which they kind of are), and that his pa is a dutiful dullard (which, at a glance, he seems to be). He appears not to have bathed in about three weeks. Yet the closer you look, the more you notice, under the foliage, his pale face and eyes of woe, which narrow down to slits of anger. It’s just the two of them, which Wyatt isn’t happy about.
But does he know what he’s up against? He knows how to render a slaughtered hog, how to cover his own tracks, how to subdue a prisoner with half a dozen punches, how to staunch a bullet wound with witch hazel, how to hide himself in a field of wheat, and how to put his son in his place by speaking to him in drawling commands like "Why don’t you cool his fever instead of vaporizing on every thought that comes into your head?" Before long, the outlaws arrive, standing in front of the farmhouse, and Henry comes out to be porch to meet them. We also notice just how many things Henry knows how to do.
There are twists involving who all these violent men really are. It would be unfair to give away more of "Old Henry," which is a rock-solid, off-the-beaten-path Western, one that’s been built as a kind of pedestal for Nelson’s performance. "Old Henry" is about violence and redemption, fathers and sons, and the mythology that lives in all our hearts. And the way Nelson plays it, with a charismatic gnarled conviction that deepens as the movie goes on, the revelation of who he is comes off as an eye-widening surprise, a joke, and a sly testament to how the landscape of the West might really have operated. Mostly, though, it’s about Tim Blake Nelson finding a new power in his backwoods passion.” /> Yet we know in our bones where the movie is going, and it’s a steady enjoyable ride, a touch prosaic at times, one that turns into a kind of minimalist chamber-room version of "Unforgiven," with a surprisingly touching upshot. He’s every inch the noble gruff customer we see, but he’s also not quite what he seems. What we don’t know, and what the movie starts to drop clues about, is Henry himself.

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