‘Old Henry’ Review: A Western That Does Little with the Genre

In “Old Henry,” Patsy Ponciroli has written and directed a western which contains all the mechanisms for strong storytelling —  but never digs past the superficial realm of old genre tropes.

Tim Blake Nelson, the Henry of the title, is here grizzled and grey and mutton-chopped. He looks every bit the whip-thin farmer who toils in tedious labor and who has probably seen better days. He has a modest ranch in the Oklahoma Territory circa 1906, the year in which the movie begins. He also has a teenage son, Wyatt (Gavin Lewis) who in the long tradition of teenage boys, thinks his father is a bit of a drip and can’t wait to set out on a more exciting life than the one on the farm. Nelson has a strong backlog of work as down-home country types, not least in the Coen Brothers’ 2018 western ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’, where he plays a Gene Autry-style singing cowboy straight out of a movie fantasy.

Pontrocoli films in generous widescreen and adopts a brown-grey palette appropriate for gloom-filled electricity-free rooms. DP John Matysiak does a nice job of differentiating the spaces external and internal, tightly framing the cramped indoors versus the wide rolling plains beyond, dense with scrub and the possibility of various lurking dangers.

One fateful day, just such danger emerges. Henry stumbles across a wounded young man (Scott Haze) with an unexplained bag of cash and takes him in; the man claims he’s a sheriff who’s been waylaid by bandits after trying to take away their loot. Later the same day, a squinting, black-hatted stranger named Ketchum (Stephen Dorff) turns up, searching for a wanted man he claims he — as the actual sheriff — has injured and must claim. Caught between two parties seemingly hellbent on killing the other, and unsure of who or what to believe, Henry and his son Wyatt pull out their rifles and do the best they can to survive the day, surrounded indoors and outdoors by shifty men.

From there on out, Ponciroli shunts his characters into a sort of chamber piece via stand-off, a talkative venture that yields some strongly-written scenes but little to really nudge ‘Old Henry’ into a film that feels distinctive. It is admittedly well-crafted;  Nelson is ideal as an unassuming older gentleman with a past, and Ponciroli has a particular ear for eloquently salty old-timey dialogue. While describing a wanted man, Ketchum (Dorff) spits, ‘Some call him handsome, but the most I credit to him is devilry.’ Another man later calls Ketchum himself a ‘long-winded sonofabitch.’

But even the central twist of the film — while entertaining — is not so much dispelling tired stereotypes as it is gussying them up. And its other touchstones — about fathers and sons, wanting better for your kids than what you had, and protecting them from your mistakes — are all pretty face-value lessons at this stage. None of its contents add up to much more than a mild ‘oh!’ from the viewer.

The American West — as history, concept, and cinematic genre — has always the capacity to contain deeper stories about civilization, law and order, racism, masculinity, or the fundamental rot of Manifest Destiny. Ask John Ford (well, if you have a Ouija Board), or Kelly Reichardt, or Cormac McCarthy for that matter. Most of the truly great westerns grapple with such themes, be they old (‘High Noon’) or young (‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’). The trouble with ‘Old Henry’ is that it doesn’t even try. With such a familiar framework — one that has already been chopped and revised and had neo-and quasi- placed in front of it, you’d have assumed the film would have worked harder at revisionism. Instead, Ponciroli plays it safe, utilising well-worn cliches: the creaky toil of 19th century farm life interrupted by a mysterious stranger; the corrupt lawman; a wife dead by consumption; and  a callow teenager seeking adventure and discovering the peril it entails.

Ponciroli has made a handsomely-appointed film, but I can’t help but to want more for this fading old monument of a genre, especially out of a Venice Film Festival which this year boasts as a frontrunner the masterful Jane Campion western ‘Power of the Dog’. ‘Old Henry’ is a retread of the same dusty plains and macho bonds we’ve seen too many times before. It tells its slim story competently, but it does so little beyond that that it can’t help but feel mediocre. A mediocre film might be excused somewhat by the merit of some ambition, but the problem with ‘Old Henry’ is that there isn’t enough of that, either.

Grade: C-

“Old Henry” world premiered at the Venice Film Festival and will be theatrically released by Shout! Studios on October 1.

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