Starring: Tim Blake Nelson, Stephen Dorff, Gavin Lewis, Scott Haze, Trace Adkins
Director: Potsy Ponciroli
Mood: If you’re suffering family drama and need a distraction in the form of a riveting Western that furiously unravels the lies and secrecy keeping one of the West’s most famous outlaws alive.
“It can be hard to tell who and what a man is, he’s got a mind to convince you otherwise.”
Henry (Tim Blake Nelson)
Stop what you’re doing right now and watch Old Henry! There’s NOTHING better that you could do with your time right now.
Last week I rewatched The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, and that movie is so outstanding that I immediately rewatched O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? So of course when Netflix was like “hey, here’s a brand new Tim Blake Nelson Western,” I was ready to make it a three-film bender.
This movie literally had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish. I’m serious. I was leaning forward, not even using my awesomely soft couch pillows, jaw-dropped in awe of its brilliance for 138 minutes. And I’m going to watch it again before the week’s up.
Every moment of Old Henry is Western perfection. This is the fresh, action-packed story we’ve long deserved. The big reveal is a delicious payoff for fans of the genre, or Old West history – so do yourself a favour and avoid spoilers.
And since there’s almost no trivia about it on IMDb, I’ve assembled a whole bunch for you.
Old Henry opens on a guy running for his life from three men on horseback. The men wear badges. It seems pretty clear what’s going on. Their leader, Sam Ketchum (Stephen Dorff) shoots him down and then tortures him for information on another man.
The level of cutthroat action and intensity created in those first scenes sets the tone. And although there are peaks and valleys in the action, the intensity never lets up.
Cut to a windy hay field and a man’s weary narration about the places he’s lived: New York, Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Mexico. Henry (Tim Blake Nelson) settled on the life of a farmer, and he’s trying to raise his teenage son Wyatt (Gavin Lewis) to be a farmer, too.
But a riderless horse wearing a bloody saddle appears on their farm, and sets off a series of events that throws everything into chaos. Nobody is who they claimed to be, and many of them are going to die.
Old Henry does a hell of a lot with a tiny cast and simple locations.
There are just eight characters, and it all takes place at two farms and a seemingly endless hay field. Unlike blockbuster Westerns like The Magnificent Seven, that intimate quality puts the entire focus on the strength of the script – and this story is up to the task.
- Fun Fact #1: Director Potsy Ponciroli also wrote Old Henry‘s gripping script (with later help from Nelson), which is only his second movie script. At the time of this review, he has just 434 Instagram followers.
The movie seems like it was made for Tim Blake Nelson, although Ponciroli has said he never thought he could or would get Nelson. Meanwhile, Nelson told GQ his initial reaction to being offered the lead was, “Well, it happened. You’ve been offered a character that’s described as old.”
Whether it was intentional or fate, Nelson IS Old Henry. He’s like a dark, wiry, beat-up sun around which everyone else orbits. This is the opposite of everything I associate with his name – no joy, no cowardly goofiness, no theatricality. Just a grimly stoic resolve.
You watch the way he carefully considers his words and actions, his expression never changing yet you can see dozens of possible outcomes playing out and being weighed behind his eyes… Nelson expertly evokes the thick AF wall that this man has built for good reason.
And then he shocks you with this extreme physicality when he suddenly starts taking people down with guns, an axe, and his bare knuckles.
- Fun Fact #2: Tim Blake Nelson spent five months working on gunplay for the gunslinging role of Buster Scruggs, but he still devoted six months to researching how Henry would speak and move, and two more months training his body for this role.
Stephen Dorff makes a bloody violent, sinister ‘sheriff’ Sam Ketchum. From his first scenes, where he’s visibly enjoying torture, to his absolutely epic departure (see the spoilers at the end), he’s every bit the villain.
- Fun Fact #3: Although there was a cowboy outlaw named Sam Ketchum in the 1890s, the arguably more famous namesake is the partner of legendary comic strip cop Dick Tracy. He made his first appearance in 1949 as Sam Catchem, and his name has since been spelled in comics and movies as Ketcham and Ketchum.
What I like about Dorff’s performance in Old Henry is the sort of cocky, self-satisfied glee he exudes, which you don’t often see in older adult characters – especially in Westerns. Ketchum looks like he genuinely enjoys hunting men, bullying people, and doing murder.
Dorff feels like a regular in Western supporting roles, and that’s what you need opposite the powerhouse that is Nelson.
- Fun Fact #4: Although you’ve likely seen Dorff in action flicks, he once appeared in numerous popular ‘80s and ‘90s sitcoms like Diff’rent Strokes, Married with Children, Roseanne, and Blossom. Oh, and he played the asshole Alicia Silverstone was tryin’ to forget Aerosmith’s ‘Cryin’’ music video.
Everyone else brings full commitment to their roles, especially Trace Adkins.
Now, I’ve talked a bit of shit about Adkins in past reviews. But here, he blew me away with his quietness. From his stringy hair and grunting manner to his stained overalls, he truly feels like the old farmer next door. I hoped he’d come back into the story, then panicked when he did.
Old Henry’s cinematography is, for lack of a better word, immersive. Although the story is full of nonstop twists and action, every shot and moment is filled with careful detail.
- Fun Fact #5: Tim Blake Nelson coined the term ‘micro-Western’ to capture the movie’s focus on characters and relationships.
From the lighting and composition on the indoor scenes to the strangely threatening vastness of the fields, nothing is overproduced. The dirt and the sweat and the blood all feel thoroughly real, which makes the action painfully powerful.
Another place Old Henry excels is its pacing.
I didn’t play with my phone even once, I was so fully invested in the events unfolding on screen. Yes, it’s driven by a father and son and their family secrets. But it expertly weaves that theme through one of deception and trying to outrun your past. Even the quiet moments are packed with tension.
When you figure out the major reveal – which isn’t too far in if you pay attention to the newspaper clippings, further along if you wait for Henry to speak his last name – you realize there’s probably a bloodbath coming down. But every time a character makes a choice, your understanding of the players has to adapt.
- Fun Fact #6: The hat Tim Blake Nelson dons when he’s accepted his situation is specifically designed after the hat worn in the only known photograph of his character’s true identity. The two guns he uses most in the movie, a Winchester carbine and a Colt single-action, are also in that famous photo. The more you look at that photo and the movie poster at the top of this article, the more you’ll appreciate Nelson’s transformation!
And then Old Henry’s final showdown feels like it’s half of the movie, which is EXACTLY what I like.
I wasn’t kidding when I said I enjoyed this movie so much that I’m going to watch it again this week. I’ve already started making others watch it. If you’re not into spoilers, stop scrolling now.
Some of my favourite aspects of Old Henry can’t be mentioned without giving away plot points.
When Wyatt pulls the newspapers out and you see headlines about the Lincoln County War and Pat Garret, I shouted “holy shit!” at the TV. I scared my dog. I mean, I was pretty sure this would be a good movie, but when it became about Billy the Kid I was giddily thanking the movie gods.
If you’re going to dust off an over-baked mythos like the survival of Billy the Kid, you’d better do it right and bring something unique. Old Henry‘s take on his afterlife so unforgivingly thankless and mundane, it works perfectly.
I also appreciate how Wyatt looks like how Billy the Kid was described in his youth.
HOW GREAT was Stephen Dorff’s dogged pursuit of Henry in his final scenes?! He’s shot to hell, even right through his face, and he’s still grinning and fighting. It’s a great piece of acting.
And as referenced in my trivia points above, Tim Blake Nelson did an extremely thorough job researching Billy the Kid. He has the squinty eyes with one perpetually puffed up, the crooked teeth, even the hard build like a coiled snake. But one of the few trivia points on IMDb lists this as Nelson’s fifth Western, when in fact it’s his sixth – they forgot a favourite of mine, Dead Man’s Walk.