My dad always loved western films. Black and white westerns staring “The Duke” John Wayne were some of his favourites. That’s probably why I’ve always associated western movies with men in his age group. Normally, I’d pass on westerns thinking they weren’t for my generation. However, that all changed after I saw the film Old Henry. Starring Tim Blake Nelson, this film was good enough to make me question why I had ever dismissed westerns as being ‘uncool.’
The brilliance of this movie is in its simplicity. Westerns all tend to have the same elements: saloons, gambling, gunfights, and pursuits of justice. Old Henry strips away all the usual tropes and leaves only the basics. The entire story takes place in one setting. There isn’t even a town – it’s just one farmhouse and the open Oklahoma landscape. The cast is made up of only six people. The main character is Henry, an aging widower trying to make a living farming the land. One day, he discovers a wounded man named Curry lying next to a satchel of money. Henry takes the man back to his farm and tends to his wounds. Curry claims to be a sheriff who was present the night Billy the Kid was killed. Shortly afterwards a gang of men show up looking for Curry, but Henry refuses to hand him over. Violence erupts between the two sides and the viewer isn’t quite sure who’s the hero and who’s the villain until the very end.
The filmmakers took a real risk with such a simple plot. Viewers like westerns for their predictability. There is a certain level of comfort in cliches. Take those away and it can be a setup for disaster. But thinking outside the box is what sets Old Henry apart. It’s a masterpiece. The dialogue is written in a way that keeps a constant amount of tension throughout the film. The viewer is always kept unsure of what each character is hiding. Danger could come from any direction.
Some westerns make the mistake of looking overly polished with cowboys looking like they just stepped out of their movie trailer, cleanshaven and neatly dressed. All the characters in Old Henry reflected the grittiness of the time– dirt under the fingernails, threadbare shirts. The gunfights were raw and brutal. There are no trick shots or endless bullet supplies. It is straight up point-and-shoot and hope you are the last man standing. It is refreshing to see a bit of realism in an industry full of overdone special effects.
Old Henry has some of the best storytelling I’ve seen in a long time. I know my dad would have loved it. But it doesn’t matter what age group you’re in, Old Henry is a must-see film. Young or old, I promise you will come away with a new appreciation for western films.