After its presentation at the 78th Venice Film Festival in September 2021 and distribution on VOD, the western “Old Henry” is enjoying growing success. In the United States, the National Board Review listed it in its ranking of the ten best independent films of 2021, and the film spent a long time in the iTunes Top 10. It is thus more than time to look into this “little” western which has everything of a very big one.
A fake “little” western
There is probably no film genre more historic than that of the western, and embarking on a production featuring the legends of the Old West is not the most comfortable task today. In other words, you must not miss yourself and there are many pitfalls. The great recent westerns, as if to ensure the seriousness of their approach, thus bear witness to great ambition. Hostile in 2017, The Sisters Brothers in 2018, and most recently The Power of The Dog have offered violent and poignant dramas, each with an all-star cast and long time, all over two hours.
Old Henry is not a production of this caliber, being a more classic western in its form, more compact in its narrative, and served by actors who have so far mainly distinguished themselves in supporting roles. But, presented as The Power of The Dog at the 78th Venice Film Festival, director Potsy Ponciroli’s film attracted great critical recognition and has become a sleeper success in territories where it is available on VOD.
To complete its fame, it is even in the ranking of former President Barack Obama’s favorite films for the year 2021. Not bad for a film that has only been distributed in 30 theaters in the United States.
Are the second knives the sharpest?
In many ways, Tim Blake Nelson is an all-too-rare comedian. All the films in which he appears benefit greatly from his performance and grow out of it. O’Brother of the Coen brothers, lincoln by Steven Spielberg, or even The Way of Justice by Daniel Cretton, to name but a few, would not be the same without him. With his recognizable features, his unique voice, and his wide playing range, Tim Blake Nelson finds in Old Henry one of his rare first roles, and there is imperial. He is in charge of the deep intrigue of the film, that of the unveiling of his true identity, while he is embarked on a confrontation with an outlaw and tries at all costs to protect his son Wyatt (Gavin Lewis).
While roughing it on a small farm in remote Montana sometime after 1900, Henry and Wyatt picked up a dying man, Curry (Scott Haze), with a satchel full of cash. Hesitating at first to let him die where he found him, Hery takes him home and nurses him back to health. But once knowledge and strength are regained, Curry reveals himself to be a man with a troubled past pursued by an outlaw and his gang, the cruel Ketchum, played by Stephen Dorff.
A perfectly executed western and a masterful finale
Assaulted, Henry will have to take out the six-gunner. A moment that he pushes back as much as possible, but an exercise to which he is extremely skilled. With its patient rhythm, until its exceptional final sequence, Old Henry tells the end of a great legend of the West. Because, of course, Henry is not the simple farmer, widower, and taciturn, as he wishes to impersonate.
And facing him, Stephen Dorff has a blast in this role of a violent and sadistic outlaw. It will be noticed that the actor is always perfect when it comes to interpreting hateful characters. Scott Haze and Gavin Lewis play their secondary score perfectly, respectively bringing the suspense and the emotion that contribute to the high flavor of the film.
The director Potsy Ponciroli perfectly masters the codes of the western, with his treatment of the “border”, this mysterious and moving space where the law of the modern world collides with the mores of the Far West, with also his setting which takes up the classic shots of the genre, while systematically preserving their effectiveness.
Old Henry has nothing to do with it, and its aesthetic blends perfectly with what the script wants to tell: the last days of a man who has become a legend, and the safeguarding of the life of his son, who must pass to him in the “new world”. Old Henry is thus so carefully told and interpreted that his revelation is powerful and surprising, without the film ever deceiving its viewer to achieve this.
Available in France since February 3, 2022, on the VOD channel, Old Henry is a perfectly successful western and well worth a look.