“Old Henry” is a familiar but solid western thriller film which turns out to be more enjoyable and interesting than expected. We can clearly see through what it is going to do along with its seemingly plain ordinary hero, and it will surely remind you of many senior western films ranging from “The Shootist” (1976) to “The Unforgiven” (1992), but it gradually engages us more via its efficient handling of story and characters, and we come to care a lot about what may happen next along the story.
Tim Blake Nelson, who has always been one of the most dependable character actors working in Hollywood during last two decades since he drew our attention via his colorful supporting turn in the Coen brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (2000), plays Henry McCarthy, a shabby widower farmer who has run a small farm in the middle of some remote area of Oklahoma in 1906. Since his dear wife died around 10 years ago, he has lived there alone with his young son Wyatt (Gavin Lewis), and their only neighbor is his brother-in-law, who has also run his own farm not so far from Henry’s. Although he and his son are not exactly friendly to each other, it is evident to us that Henry cares a lot about his son, and he even does not let Wyatt handle a gun even though Wyatt is now old enough for that in the standard of the American Old West.
Wyatt is understandably not so happy about his father’s insistence while also often bored with their isolated status, but something occurs to disrupt their daily life on one day. After spotting a riderless horse from the distance, he and his father promptly search for the rider in the surrounding area, and it does not take much time for them to find the rider, who has been unconscious on the ground due to his serious gunshot wound.
As looking around the spot for a while, Henry notices a bag full of money, and, while not telling anything to his son, he handles the situation as tactful as he can. First, he and his son take the injured stranger to their house, and then he comes back to the spot for not only retrieving that money bag but also erasing the traces as much as he can. Besides hiding that money bag in his secret place, he also has the injured stranger tied on a bed just in case, and Wyatt goes along with this without any question because Henry says it is just for the safety for the injured stranger.
However, Wyatt cannot help but become curious about who the injured stranger really is – and what his father does not tell him yet. After seeing his father hiding something in that secret place of his, he decides to delve more into the situation for himself, and he is certainly excited and intrigued by what he finds besides that money bag. Yes, it seems that there is the past which his father has hidden from him for years, and that eventually prompts him to do something not allowed by his father.
Meanwhile, the injured stranger turns out to be more suspicious and unreliable than he seemed at first, and that makes Henry and Wyatt’s circumstance trickier than before. When three other guys come Henry’s farm, Henry instinctively senses more trouble even while seemingly accepting what these three dudes tell him, and one of them already seems to sense something fishy about Henry.
Because what is shown in advance during the opening scene, it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that these three guys are the main villains of the story – and that our seemingly inconsequential hero turns out to be someone who may be more than a match to be handled by these three guys. At one point, we get a quiet but tense moment when he must evade these three guys in the middle of a wide space without getting noticed at all, and then we are reminded again of how much he has been underestimated by his son.
Slowly developing the dramatic tension outside and inside Henry’s house along the plot, the movie gives us several good moments to reveal more of its main characters’ life and personality. In case of the conversation scene between Henry and the injured stranger, it simply feels like an interrogation at first, but then it comes to suggest more of what these two characters have respectively kept to themselves for years, and you may not be so surprised by what is revealed around the end of the story.
The story expectedly culminates to the finale filled with lots of gunshots, but director/writer Potsy Ponciroli and his crew members including cinematographer John Matysiak and editor Jamie Kirkpatrick did a competent job of delivering this moment with enough gritty intensity. While Nelson steadily holds the center as before, Gavin Lewis, Scott Haze, Trace Adkins, and Stephen Dorff are also fine in their respective supporting parts, and Dorff, who has somehow not received enough recognition despite a number of stellar performances he gave after his breakout turn in “The Power of One” (1992), has a juicy fun with his talky but chilling villain character.
In conclusion, “Old Henry” does not surprise that much in terms of story and characters, but it attains its goals as much as it can, and Nelson demonstrates here in this film that he can be as tough and ruthless as, say, Bob Odenkirk in “Nobody” (2021). Seriously, will we ever see these two ever-reliable character actors fight with each other on the screen?