Before we meet Henry, we feel like we already know him. Old Henry is set in Oklahoma in the early 1900s — back when it still felt like the wild west — and the grizzled, mustachioed man at the center of the frame might as well be a million years old. Henry is a farmer who lives with his son Wyatt (Gavin Lewis) way out in the country, and it’s clear he’s quite happy not being part of society anymore. Henry’s wife died a while ago, and since then, well, he hasn’t had much use for people.
The guy doesn’t want trouble, but because this is an old-fashioned Western, trouble finds him in the form of an injured, unconscious stranger, Curry (Scott Haze), he encounters in the middle of nowhere. Reluctantly, Henry brings Curry to his home to recuperate, intrigued by his bloody bullet wound and the large amount of money he has on him. But soon after, Ketchum (Stephen Dorff) and his posse come riding to Henry’s house looking for Curry — they say they’re with the local police, but Henry knows they’re lying. Old Henry is gonna have to settle this with guns.
It’s not just the cozy familiarity of the material that makes us feel like we know Henry. It’s because Henry is portrayed by Tim Blake Nelson, a consummate character actor who rarely gets his own starring vehicle. He’s usually part of the ensemble, the second banana, the comic relief, the guy playing a character you’re not sure you can trust. But in Old Henry, which opened in theaters yesterday, he brings a rugged, melancholy authority to a widower with secrets. We’re instantly on the man’s side because he’s played by Nelson: Even when the 57-year-old actor has been villains, he radiates such integrity that audiences have warm feelings toward him. Henry is a bit of an enigma, but our long association with Nelson fills in the gaps.
Nelson has been acting on stage and screen since the early 1990s, and although his face is familiar, you may need a moment to place it. Right, he was part of George Clooney’s chain-gang runaways in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Maybe you remember him from Holes or The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. A couple years ago, he was in the rebooted/reimagined Watchmen as Wade, the detective who wore the reflective mask. (Funny enough, it was Nelson’s voice that proved a bit of a turn-on for lots of fans of that series.)
The bottom line is that he’s a jack-of-all-trades. Comedy, drama, period pieces, slapstick — he can do them all, and he’s even directed his own films, including the ultra-serious Shakespeare adaptation O and the oddball Edward Norton dual-role dark comedy Leaves of Grass. He’s never been a star, but he just keeps chugging along doing great work. Asked once about how character actors can sustain a Hollywood career, he suggested, “[It] takes a kind of tenacity and belief in yourself and, for lack of a better way of putting it, a refusal to go away.”
Written and directed by Potsy Ponciroli, Old Henry is the sort of throwback Western that’s the perfect dad movie: It’s about a guy with honor squaring off against a lot of varmints who have none. Ponciroli freely pays homage to genre classics like The Searchers, although Nelson is the furthest thing from a John Wayne type. In fact, one of Old Henry’s best elements is its against-type casting of Nelson, who lacks the burly masculinity of Clint Eastwood — if his Henry is the prototypical “stoic outsider,” the diminutive Nelson subverts the trope by presenting as a pip-squeak farmer, not someone you’d necessarily be intimidated to face in a shootout. But, of course, Henry wasn’t always a farmer — as we’ll learn, he used to be pretty good with a pistol — and now that Ketchum has brought hell to his door, this widower will channel his former self to protect his boy and this stranger.
The cocky Ketchum feels confident that he and his men will be able to take down Henry — the poor guy’s outnumbered and badly outgunned — but there’s a calm certainty that Nelson radiates in the role from the first moment that makes you think it’s actually the posse who are in trouble. Wyatt has no idea what kind of man his father used to be, and the snot-nosed teen keeps insisting that he’s old enough to learn how to shoot a gun. But Henry doesn’t want his kid going down the same path that he did, and the look on the man’s weathered face says more than words (or a backstory) ever could.
Old Henry plays into a comforting macho fantasy — the notion that, no matter how old we get, we’re still badasses who can whup these young punks — and yet it’s awfully enjoyable to watch Henry regain the killer instinct he gave up long ago, probably because of that wife who’s no longer alive. Westerns are often about men’s true natures — how they’ll never be able to tame the wildness within them — and Nelson deftly balances Henry’s wistful current state with the more violent individual he tried to bury. Rest assured that inner violence will resurface.
Nelson takes to the material so effortlessly that fans may lament the fact that only now is he getting to be a leading man — albeit in a low-budget indie that doesn’t have near the same amount of hoopla as a Venom: Let There Be Carnage. But there’s also a beauty to Old Henry’s under-the-radar quality, and it plays directly into the film’s themes. Like a lot of young people, Wyatt disdains his father, who he only sees as some broken-down farmer with little to show for his life. In a similar way, audiences may underestimate Henry as he prepares to go to war with Ketchum — not to mention contend with this mysterious stranger Curry, who even in his wounded state has some dangerous secrets of his own.
If Old Henry starred some action hero, we’d know what to expect. But Nelson’s quiet command throws us for a loop — he gives us a portrait of regret and grizzled manhood that’s never mythic. It’s the value of having a master character actor in the role, locating Henry’s humanness so that, when the bullets finally do fly, there’s an earthy soulfulness to the bloodshed. Old Henry will leave you wondering what it must have been like to be around Henry when he was young — it will also make you think about all the great actors who were never conventional movie stars and, therefore, never got a chance to do what Nelson does here. Like Henry, Tim Blake Nelson reminds us that you never know what some people are capable of.