Thanks to its lengthy boom throughout the days of John Wayne and Lee van Cleef, the legacy of the western genre lingers on in the minds of those too young to be a part of its heyday and too old to let that missed, nostalgic opportunity go. Kurt Russell had a hand in a modern western and it was good. Every few years, performers come together and seem hellbent on appearing in one of their own westerns. Few will match the ground-breaking pace and exploration of those westerns of old, but the Tim Blake Nelson-starring feature, Old Henry, may be up there with them for its intricate style, gritty and dirty characters and consistent iconography.
Those small details can make or break a western. Dirt under the nails, dusters covering fatigued bodies running after nondescript protagonists that have deemed themselves unworthy of either law enforcement or rebels looking to rob and pillage their way to the good life. Either way, Old Henry and its leading man have incorporated some excellent staples of the genre. By doing so they create new brutality and connect it with the stern terms of the old-school interactions. Wayne may have been a hardened cowboy and spirited successor of the American Dream, but the characters looking to do harm to the eponymous character (played successfully by Nelson) are brutal, cutting and truer versions of what the west was like.
Potsy Ponciroli paints a vivid picture of western ideations, the dream of the pilgrimage made to new lands and hopeful generations looking to work hard on land their family will soon, likely, take over. Old Henry grips at this well, and the chemistry between Nelson and Gavin Lewis, who plays his son Wyatt, is a formidable bond that makes up much of the emotional core. Old Henry is not afraid to get its hands dirty, both in its depiction of everyday living in the rise of this new America nor in its ability to tell of darker days for people forced into actions they never thought possible. Nelson is the perfect man for that, an actor that can portray sympathy and moral bereavement with physicality and range. His no-nonsense attitude toward Wyatt is interesting, the tough-as-nails dad trying to raise his son as best he can. Old Henry has simple ideas but knows how to pull them off.
A pleasant surprise considering how few independent dramas can truly grapple with the real focus of their story. Not the first western for Nelson to feature in, but certainly the best option for those wanting a mysterious and dark micro western. Nelson doesn’t feel all that similar to the gritty tones of Clint Eastwood but holds within him shadows of that character type. The scores of dialogue present a tough man caring for his family in a blunt and reproachful way, the actions he takes amid beautifully shot sceneries, pleasant fields and booming orchestras. Old Henry is a culmination of great parts, marking one of the best post-Wayne westerns, and perhaps one of the best of the century. There are few westerns on the go, which makes it easier to claim something so bold about Old Henry.