In The Royal Tennenbaums (Wes Anderson, 2001), Owen Wilson plays Eli Cash, a writer who has won literary fame with a novel the premise of which he lays out like this: ‘Everyone knows that Custer died at the Battle of Little Bighorn. What my novel presupposes is… maybe he didn’t’. The book is called Old Custer and sprang immediately to mind on having watched Old Henry, but Potsy Ponciroli’s new film is a serious indeed elegiac look at the West. It has a wonderful classical feel to it.
Tim Blake Nelson stars as Henry, a single parent, a farmer whose homestead is isolated. Here he sows his crops, chops his wood, feeds his hogs and digs his ditches, ‘come rain or shine’ as his son Wyatt (Gavin Lewis) complains. Wyatt can’t wait to achieve his maturity and leave the old man to die on his own. Henry is ornery and unsympathetic of his son. He has forbidden him guns, one of the view diversion on the farm and which sets the kid out from his contemporaries. Not that he sees much of them. Their only company is Uncle Al (Trace Adkins), who occasional lends a hand with the chores.
That is soon to change when Henry discovers a gunshot man with a bag full of currency lying unconscious in a ditch. On first seeing the money he gives it a decisive ‘nope’ before having second thoughts and doubling back to save the wounded man and grab the loot. On awaking Curry (Scott Haze) claims to be a lawman, and also reveals he is being pursued by three men led by Ketchum (Stephen Dorff, happily getting his teeth into the rib meat of the role), a loquacious and violent man who also wears a sheriff’s badge but is also undoubtedly a killer. Henry is soon having to recall the man he once was in order to defend his home and his son.
Good Westerns are like hen’s teeth these days, so when one which is as well done as Ponciroli’s film it’s worth nurturing rather than feeding to the hogs. Yes, there is much that is familiar here. The character of Henry recalls that of Will Munney in Clint Eastwood’s revisionist Unforgiven (1992); Jordan Lehning’s score follows Warren Ellis and Nick Cave’s soundscape developed for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik, 2008). John Matysiak’s cinematography also feels inspired by Roger Deakins work with the same film with his appreciation of the natural light and the winter locked landscape surrounding the farm as well as nods to the muddy delights of Walter Hill’s The Long Riders. Without arriving at the epic Shakespearean cussedness of television series Deadwood, Ponciroli’s dialogue manages an ornate difference which Tim Blake Nelson can chew on like a wad of old tobacco. Blake Nelson embodies Henry completely. His tired farmer’ s slouched, his drooping eye: a man who has hidden and to some extent let himself go but whose muscles still remember the killing they have done.
It’s also refreshing that Ponciroli doesn’t try to update the genre too much. It has the comfortable familiarity of a creaking rocking chair: a piece of work whittled out of a tradition of familiar tropes. Even its deconstruction of the West is something that has been going on since The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962), if not even before. It’s been deconstructed, mythologised, corrected ever since it began. Old Henry might not make new converts or break new ground but fans of the genre will take to it like a familiar tale told well.
Old Henry has just premiered at the 78th Venice Film Festival. On Sky TV on Sunday, February 20th. Also available on Amazon.