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Columns Eleanor Ringel Cater

‘Old Henry’ – actor Tim Blake Nelson shines in ‘Old Western’-style movie

Tim Blake Nelson stars in "Old Henry"

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

An expert rendering of Old West minimalism, “Old Henry” also provides a splendid showcase for the considerable skills of its leathery, well-worn star, Tim Blake Nelson.

He plays the titular Henry, a scruffy widower who works his lone-prairie farm with the help of his teenage son (Gavin Lewis). As his crisp shirts and fashionable suspenders suggest, the kid would prefer a different life than the hard-scrabble one that’s sustained his father for decades.

The pair is as mismatched as they are isolated.

Poster for “Old Henry” movie

Then one day a riderless horse appears, its saddle suspiciously blood smeared. Henry heads out to investigate and discovers a badly wounded man, a six-shooter and a satchel full of cash. Almost against his better judgment, he brings all three back to his home.

Trouble follows in the form of a trio of men sporting sheriff badges and led by a suspiciously cheerful (subtext: sadistic) Stephen Dorff. They claim they are looking for a bank robber, but Henry isn’t so sure. Is his new houseguest the bad guy – or is it Dorff, whose henchmen have disconcertingly itchy trigger fingers?

But as long as we’re talking gunplay, Dorff notes he’s never seen a farmer who carries his gun the way Henry does.

Dorff may be a self-infatuated poseur, but he’s not stupid – as we soon learn in the inevitable showdown that follows.

“Old Henry” is less an homage to the Old West than it is to old Westerns. A hint of Clint here, a dash of The Duke there. And the final pay-off carries a whiff of frontier legend.

The film has its problems, most notably, the badly miscast Lewis, who apparently wandered onto Henry’s spread from the Actors Studio. And several scenes seem borrowed less from classic Westerns than from cheesy ‘50s TV series (“Wagon Train” anyone?).

Tim Blake Nelson stars in “Old Henry”

But writer/director Potsy Ponciroli has set things up so it all hinges on Nelson. And he’s magnificent. The performance is what you might call Full-Tilt Hick – an apotheosis of the comic characters he played for the Coen brothers in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.”

Except, Nelson gives Henry a skanky, realistic edge. This is someone not be messed with, someone with a past he’s tried to escape and a future he doesn’t much care about. Someone who just wants to be left alone to raise his son.

If “Old Henry” were a bigger film, Nelson would be generating Oscar talk. But then someone like Henry probably wouldn’t give a dang about that kind of recognition. And neither, I’m guessing, does Tim Blake Nelson.

“Old Henry” is available on demand.

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Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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