How do we love Tim Blake Nelson? Let me pontificate the ways.
It’s the folksy demeanor, the disarming smile with just a pinch of menace, the Oklahoma drawl that makes you underestimate whoever he portrays on the silver screen, a drawl oft-deployed to best effect when he’s curling his lips around 40 word soliloquies when a mere two will do.
“Don’t let my white duds and pleasant demeanor fool ya. I, too, have been known to violate the statutes of man… and not a few of the laws of the Almighty!”
That’s the one and only Buster Scruggs. The Coen Brothers (“O Brother Where At Thou?” and “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) unleashed Nelson’s magic, his special gift. Many a movie maker since has had the good sense to serve up him performing that sort of florid, arcane speech in all manner of motion pictures.
In “Old Henry,” a Western by a fellow who goes by Potsy Ponciroli, Nelson has his best role since “Buster.” It’s a tale of bad hombres who underestimate “some shaky old farmer” in the Middle of Nowhere, Oklahoma, and do so at their own peril.
Henry (Nelson) has been a Sooner since “before the guns went off,” meaning before the “Sooners” joined him there. His boy Wyatt (Gavin Lewis of TV’s “Little Fires Everywhere”) may bridle at being stuck where they are at the start of a new century (it’s 1906). But the old man growls “You’ll discover there’s worse arrangements.”
Wyatt’s been sheltered as much as the son of a ten-years-widowed pig farmer can be. Henry won’t even let the boy go hunting. Guns are too dangerous. Just how dangerous becomes obvious when a riderless horse with blood on the saddle shows up.
Henry rides out to find the missing man and discovers him passed out from a bloody chest wound. Henry spies the saddlebag full of cash. And he does the math.
But he reconsiders as he’s about to ride off, covers his tracks like he’s done it before, and when he gets home he and Wyatt take responsibility for the stranger’s welfare even as Henry hides the man’s gun and loot.
Of course he’s got to ride off and fetch the doc. Of course he ties the unconscious man down. Of course Wyatt ignores most everything the old man warns him about before leaving.
And when Henry returns, chased back after getting a look at the dangerous hombres with badges hunting for their “guest,” there’s trouble to deal with right now, and bigger trouble on its way over the hill.
Stephen Dorff is Ketchum, the “long-winded” leader of the posse, a guy we’ve already seen torture and hang a man in pursuit of information, a violent man given to no hasty action when a lot of talking and strategizing can be indulged in first. And Ketchum recognizes that this “shaky old farmer” “didn’t hold that pistol like any farmer I’ve ever seen.”
Writer-director Ponciroli, one of the creators of the Billy Ray Cyrus TV comedy “Still the King,” gives us three “You ask a lotta questions, mister” interrogations, nicely written and chewed on by those who play them.
“You’re not fixin’ to shoot any of us with that pistol, are ya?”
“So far, I got no reason to.”
Nelson and Dorff are nicely-matched. Scott Haze does a fine job of making the wounded stranger untrustworthy, sentimental and yet almost sympathetic at times.
Lewis never shakes the “modern, genteel,” almost “delicate” vibe as the boy and seems a trifle miscast. Trace Adkins has a much smaller and just-demanding-enough part, as Henry’s brother-in-law, and doesn’t embarrass himself.
This is Nelson’s show, trotting out lazy-eyed, slow-talking threats, evasions and folksy fatherly wisdom to a kid who doesn’t respect him — yet.
“I seen the scars on your body.”
“Cuz I ain’t hid’em from ya. Now maybe you’ll understand your raisin’.”
The plot covers a seriously overfamiliar, over-filmed piece of Western lore and legend. But Ponciroli stages a mean opening chase on foot and a gimlet-eyed shootout that holds its own with many a Western, pretty much any one not filmed by Walter Hill or Clint Eastwood.
But it’s the title character and the great character actor playing him that turns this otherwise decent indie Western into something special. And Nelson pulls that off every time he squints or opens his mouth.
Rating: unrated, bloody, graphic violence, profanity
Cast: Tim Blake Nelson, Gavin Lewis, Scott Haze, Max Arciniega, Richard Speight Jr, Trace Adkins and Stephen Dorff
Credits: Scripted and directed by Potsy Ponciroli. A Shout! Studios release.
Running time: 1:39