Old Henry is about as dusty and unoriginal as westerns come.
Writer-director Potsy Ponciroli’s Old Henry dares to go where nearly every Western in the history of the film medium has gone before. The titular Henry (Tim Blake Nelson) leads a life of solitude in the Oklahoma Territory of 1906, farming the harsh terrain with his teenage son, Wyatt (Gavin Lewis). Having lost his wife to tuberculosis ten years prior, Henry has devoted himself to raising his boy, ensuring he has a better life than the mysterious past from which he himself has judiciously sought to escape. Yet the sudden appearance of an injured lawman (Scott Haze) carrying an obscene amount of cash causes Henry to face old demons, as he fights to protect his son and homestead from a trio of merciless criminals who will stop at nothing to get back what has been wrongfully taken from them. So goes another tale of Old West guilt and redemption, this one featuring a twist so inane that it almost makes the proceedings worth a watch.
Ponciroli takes inspiration not from the masters of the genre, i.e. Ford, Leone, Eastwood, but instead the Coen brothers, which sounds more intriguing on paper than it actually is. Henry is nothing, if not a glum version of Buster Scruggs — and played by the very same actor, for good measure. The film as a whole has been color-graded to death, its primaries bleached of all vibrancy and its secondary colors taking on a surrealistic glow straight out of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? handbook. A shootout near the film’s mid-section is eerily reminiscent of the late-night ambush in the Coens’ remake of True Grit, minus the comical use of a clogged chimney. There is no levity to be found anywhere within Old Henry, making the film a joyless slog and proving that Ponciroli took all of the wrong cues from his muses. Nelson is given absolutely nothing to do except recite hoary lines of dialogue along with various passages of scripture when things look especially rough. Stephen Dorff pops up as the lead mercenary, and while his performance is less than revelatory, let it be said the man has a face tailor-made for the Western baddie, so weathered and sun-beaten it resembles a 50-year-old leather poncho, and this is meant as a compliment. As with every 21st century Western, the violence is realistic to the point of overkill, every stray bullet leaving an oozing, bloody gash that is lovingly framed by the camera for maximum impact. A hatchet is used multiple times, and yes, its destruction is nauseating, but what does one expect from a film where a corpse is disposed of through carnivorous pigs, because why not enter Hannibal territory for a bit? Not a single original moment is to be found in Old Henry, nor one of any inspiration. Henry isn’t the only thing around here that is old.
Published as part of Venice International Film Festival — Dispatch 2.