“Old Henry”: Great classic Western about a father and son, starring Tim Blake Nelson.

By John Kass

Here’s my review of “Old Henry,” a new film out right now.

See it. It’s simple. Great. Independent. Minimalist. And well worth it.

Don’t worry about this column spoiling the movie. You won’t find a hair of a spoiler here.

You can see it right now right now, at the theater, or on a streaming service from at home as I did.

There are no caped super-heroes making wisecracks like snarky gods. Or robots. It’s not one of those big Hollywood movie spectaculars that get so much buzz.

But if you enjoy great, classic westerns, like “Unforgiven” with Clint Eastwood; or “Open Range” with Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner, or “Hell or High Water” with Chris Pine and Jeff Bridges, then you’ll enjoy this.

 “Old Henry,” with the uniquely faced Tim Blake Nelson.

“Frankly, I have what they call an old-time face, which has very much been to my detriment,” said Nelson, one of America’s great character actors on one of those publicity tours, “so it’s nice to take advantage of it.”

Nelson does take advantage of that face of his and this time there’s a droopy eye. You may have seen him in “Oh Brother Where Art Thou” and as the singing cowboy in “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.”

Nelson doesn’t live in the Oklahoma hill country. He lives in New York, studied the classics in college and was cooking dinner for his wife and family when he got the call about “Old Henry.”

His intelligence makes a weapon of that face of his. It’s not pretty like Hollywood faces. It a face of a regular guy. And he doesn’t hide what’s behind the eyes.

Nelson plays a stoic Oklahoma farmer trying to raise his son right, away from violence and away from guns, while hiding from the weight of his own dark past.

There are horses in it, but they’re not high stepping picture book horses with long flowing manes. They’re just horses.

And then three hard men ride up to the farm.

It is a story about fathers and sons, what fathers want to protect their children from, and what the kids rush toward, heedless, compelled with life.

If you’ve been blessed to have kids with spirit and red blood in them, you might know what I mean.

It looks right for the time. The people then were different. There were no antibiotics to save lives. They were harder boned, harder skinned. They spoke with different rhythms.

Though he’s found his quiet place, the modern world is closing in on old Henry McCarty. He knows he doesn’t belong in the new world that’s coming.

Without spoiling it, I will share a couple lines of dialogue, because just I love the way old language reaches out to us from the past.

“It can be hard to tell what a man is,” says Old Henry, off camera in the opening scenes, “if he’s got a mind to tell you otherwise.”

And there was this from leader of the bad men, to one of his underlings. The underling doing the tracking explained the tracks were erased by someone who knew what he was doing.

“I don’t need you to speechify the inner workings of your halfwit canine mind,” says the leader. “I just need to know which way he went.”

That got me. I suppose the line should be a headline over what most politicians say. Maybe for pundits, too.

Why write about a western? And why this one?

I wanted to get my mind away from toxic politics and those barking dogs of the news. I don’t drink much these days, nor do I smoke pot. And I’d taken that Covid booster, it knocked me down a couple of days, all meh and achy. I tried to read “The Devil All the Time,” but the small fever got in the way.

And I didn’t want to stand in a river to fish.

So, I rented “Old Henry” (twice) and drank Betty’s soup.

There was no other escape from those barking dogs. Our garden is done for the year, just a patch of black dirt with its face open to winter. We had the last of the late broccoli the other evening.

So, no refuge in whiskey, novels, the earth, or a trout stream. But I could watch a good movie.

Years ago, I hoped to make films. And later at “the paper,” as a columnist, I’d pick out a few good ones to write about.

But that irritated the features department, and a few there stomped their feet as if I were playing with their toys. By the end I didn’t care what they thought.

Still, I might review movies, but only if there’s someone to shoot the back of my head off every day of my life.

Because, in that world, chances are you become one of those chatty and gossipy “celebrity” reporters doing publicity junkets and vaporizing nonsense on the red carpet with pretty meat puppets.

Or you end up spending too much time on crap or trying to sell crap as something worthy and realize too late that you’ve wasted your life.

Much of what comes out of Hollywood is derivative of other crap that came before, so you might as well wrap a hazmat suit around your brain.

But a movie like “Old Henry” is a treasure. And it prompts a question:

In this age of COVID isolation and big government overreach, with federal bureaucrats, their media dogs and Big Tech overlords telling us what to think and what to say, is the western about to make a comeback?

And if the genre does make a comeback in this age of New Thought Crime, what will that nostalgia tell us about our culture’s appetites, what we need and our yearnings?

I can’t say. These are questions for another other time.

“I love period movies,” Tim Blake Nelson said. “People moved differently in former times, and they certainly spoke differently in former times, and it forces an actor to think of a character as bigger than himself or herself.

“And I love doing that. I love subordinating myself to something bigger than me…doing it in a way that you’re never seen doing it. You just feel like the natural character. It causes you to be small with your work and restrained.”

The low fever is now gone. I’ve shaved. There are other things to write about, politics, recipes, guest columns to edit, and new developments to come here at johnkassnews.com.

Hope you tell your friends to subscribe.

But today I just wanted to tell you of a good movie about a hard man with a past and his son.

“Old Henry.”


(Copyright 2021 John Kass)

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