Remember that scene in “Inglourious Basterds” where Christoph Waltz’s character uses the fleeing Mélanie Laurent for target practice? Waltz misses, but in “Old Henry,” a similarly prejudiced and pugnacious man hits his target.
Al (Trace Adkins), a gang member impersonating a lawman, pauses at a hilltop on horseback after a chase through a forest. His mark has been spit out into a picturesque plain, where “Old Henry” puts the resplendent romanticism of the American expanse to feeble use. The “sheriff” slips his rifle out, aims and fires.
This “microwestern,” as writer-director Potsy Ponciroli has called it, screened at Venice (for whatever reason). It’s not that the film’s lead, Tim Blake Nelson, doesn’t deliver a Venice-worthy performance as Henry (he does). It’s simply that this is an underwhelming movie, and when the title card flashes on, you wonder if this is all “Old Henry” has got (it is).
A gory interrogation (a foot squelching the bullet wound, a man being dragged behind a horse) and absolutely deathly dialogue (“You know what? I believe you”) — that’s all this cliched opening can offer?
The matter at hand is a satchel of banknotes. Here is where Nelson comes in. The man shot in the beginning has a compatriot: Curry (Scott Haze, “said to be handsome”) makes it further down the line before getting shot by another party, and who Henry, as fate would have it, comes across and nurses back to life. Nelson’s Henry swipes the cash like a child at the cookie jar, putting Al & Co. on his tail and planting the seeds of a bloody clash for the cash.
Nelson’s Henry walks with his shoulders hunched, as if he’s in perpetual resignation to fate — it’s no idle fact that he just wants to live on his quiet little ranch in the middle of 1906 Oklahoma. Yet, Nelson spends much of his screen time plastered with the film’s methods. His figure is caked with formal flourishes that, while stylish, mummify a talented lead. The same cannot be said for his son, Wyatt, as played banally by Gavin Lewis.
There’s plenty of snazzy editing going on along with a grand display by cinematographer John Matysiak, both of which are let down by an uninspired script. Wyatt is a headlessly rebellious child who wants to shoot guns and see the world, and he can’t wait to leave his dad behind — forever — to do both. “Old Henry” becomes an incredibly poor coming-of-age tale that sees Wyatt doing every dumb little thing he can to free himself from his dad’s leash. The character is written without contradiction, and in that sense, there’s very little Lewis can do (though it doesn’t help that he overplays at every opportunity).
Contradiction does not have much of a home at all in “Old Henry.” Outside of Henry himself, the film hums with the methodical drawl its characters speak in. So as Curry slowly regains his footing and as looming shootouts meander into the film, “Old Henry” clip-clops forward as if on horseback. No matter how hard it tries — including the use of one flashback, or three — “Old Henry” can’t stop its trot.
That inertia is less than slowed by a proliferation of violence and racism, courtesy of Al. Interrogations, shootouts — you name it, “Old Henry” probably has it. In a movie obsessed with languid Americana, the violence surely taints the natural world that it’s set in, but the take on romanticism doesn’t quite come into focus. Stop and smell the roses, or speed and shoot the roses?
If the grizzled opening doesn’t make that clear, it will hit home later when a body is fed to hogs that “Old Henry” takes shelter under violence’s shock value. There’s simply too much going on: the coming-of-age plot, a few predictable twists and well-executed but nonetheless distracting shootouts. “Old Henry,” unfortunately, isn’t clear-eyed enough to distill itself into an indictment of anything larger than its characters.