“Old Henry” makes a solid, honorable go of proving once again that the foursquare western isn’t dead, though in paying homage to its forebears, it inevitably stands in their very long shadows.
While the basic standoff scenario is tautly limited in time and place, it’s hard to imagine Budd Boetticher, who made seven fantastically economical westerns with Randolph Scott, burning nearly 40 minutes bringing the opposing sides together. Tim Blake Nelson plays the title part, a farmer who keeps his past shrouded from his son (Gavin Lewis). When Henry brings home Curry (Scott Haze), a wounded man he finds with a satchel of cash nearby, three other men, led by Ketchum (Stephen Dorff), turn up at the farm to collect him.
Ketchum and Curry both say they represent the law, and a quietly effective scene finds the wily Henry, feeding Curry at night, trying to trip him up with questions. It takes a few scenes before the performances begin to crackle — Nelson, perhaps the actor most suited for westerns, initially comes across as self-conscious, not to mention dwarfed by an exceptionally wide-brimmed hat — but a sense of lived-in characters does take hold.
The writer-director Potsy Ponciroli sometimes gets too ripe in giving the dialogue a stylized twang, and the plot burdens itself with iconography it can’t support. (Even the choice of aspect ratio — rare, ultrawide 2.66:1 — suggests a kind of overreach.) Ponciroli also cheats a bit with perspective. Still, he’s learned a lesson better-illustrated in various classics of Howard Hawks and Clint Eastwood: The deliberate pacing pays off in a satisfyingly volatile climax.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes. In theaters.
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