What a wonderful thing it is when a versatile and dependable veteran character actor gets a chance to shine in a lead role deep into a career, and such is the case with Tim Blake Nelson in “Old Henry,” a near masterpiece of a Western with Nelson giving arguably the crowning performance of his career as an Oklahoma Territory farmer in the early years of the 20th century who simply wants to live out his days without any intrusion from the outside world — and we all know that’s not going to happen.
With the gorgeous and stark grasslands of Waterford, Tennessee, standing in for 1906 Oklahoma, “Old Henry” opens with a scene worthy of Clint Eastwood Westerns such as “Pale Rider” and “Unforgiven,” as a sadistic sheriff named Ketchum (Stephen Dorff); his deputy, Dugan (Richard Speight Jr.), and his Mexican tracker Stillwell (Max Arciniega) have formed a posse and have captured two fugitives. One of them is tortured for information and then executed, while the other is shot but manages to get away.
Cut to Nelson’s scraggly, scrawny and disheveled widower Henry working the unforgiving land of his farm, barking orders to his teenage son Wyatt (Gavin Lewis), who deeply resents his father for refusing to let him even pick up a gun and can’t wait until he’s reached the age where he can leave the closed-off old man behind and set out to see the world beyond this remote patch. Save for the occasional visit from Henry’s brother-in-law Al (Trace Adkins), we get the feeling there are weeks or even months when no one comes within miles of the farm — but that changes when Henry finds the wounded fugitive in a creek bed, a satchel of cash nearby. Henry takes the man back to the farmhouse, patches up his wound — and ties him to the bed, because even though this man is wearing a badge, something doesn’t sit right.
We learn this man is named Curry (played by Scott Haze), and he claims Ketchum isn’t really a sheriff, he’s a bank robber and he WILL be coming for Curry and for the money, and if he has to kill Henry and Wyatt in the process, he’ll do it without hesitation.
By this point, we’ve come to suspect there’s more to Old Henry than meets the eye. He’s adept at tending to Curry’s wounds, he punches out Curry with fast efficiency at one point, he’s lightning-fast with a gun and he sure isn’t acting like a scared farmer when he’s told there’s a trio of killers headed this way. Writer-director Potsy Ponciroli does a magnificent job of creating a slow build of tension, punctuated by the occasional and stunning moment of violence. (There’s even a measure of dark and grisly humor, e.g., when a body is disposed of and hungry pigs are fed, and those are not disconnected occurrences.)
With beautiful, widescreen cinematography by John Matysiak, impeccable production design and a pitch-perfect score from Jordan Lehning, “Old Henry” is a well-paced and engrossing story — and that’s even before there’s a revelation that’s simply fantastic, and I’ll say no more about that. The ensemble is uniformly excellent, but this is Tim Blake Nelson’s showcase from the moment he appears onscreen, and he delivers world-weary greatness every step of the way.