Each Monday, I continue to share Western movie reviews as I go through the process of finishing post and releasing my 12 Westerns in 12 Months during 2020. I am watching these films not from an audience perspective but as a filmmaker, as a student of the genre.
Week 137: Old Henry
Old Henry is probably the best new Western made this year, however that in a field of competition that often leaves this viewer disappointed, the film still leaves a lot to be desired.
What works best in this film is the simple photography. So many modern westerns rely on flashy shots and fast cutting. Here, director Ponciroli and his DP wisely choose to move the character in the most subtle ways. Some of their set-ups are original and bold. I loved in one sequence how they kept the camera at a distance, through a doorway, behind Henry’s head as he and the fugitive have a long conversation. It feels like they’re truly looking for the best angle to tell the story instead of making “cool shots” like most filmmakers these days.
The performances are also good, if not outstanding. Tim Blake Nelson is of course the strongest, with a decent turn by the actor playing his son. Scott Haze and Stephen Dorff do their jobs but give little nuance. I’m continually frustrated by villains in modern Westerns who all seem cut from the same cloth. None of them come even close to matching the treachery and humor of Richard Boone in Hombre or The Tall T. This is probably the best Western Trace Adkins has made but he isn’t in much of it.
Like I said from the start, this is probably the best Western made this year. It has strong shoot-outs, good tension, and held my attention throughout. Also unlike a lot of new Westerns, it thankfully never gets cheesy. However, the same problem persists with this film as other recent entries in the genre: the script is good at best, not great. I would say the same for my own recent 12 Westerns. Regardless of budget limitations, we made some solid Westerns, some better than others, but I think the greatest fault of these films is not their limited production value but the writing. Watching Val Kilmer’s documentary, he gave nearly all the credit for Tombstone‘s greatness to its script. When you think back on all the classic Westerns, they all had incredible stories and dialog that was memorable but also felt natural to the characters.. Nowadays, Westerns focus on style instead of story. When the filmmakers do pay more attention to the narrative (as in Old Henry’s case), it plods along as a retread of elements we’ve all seen before time and time again… and done better then. In recent attempts, the dialog I hear from the characters’ mouths is so unnatural, so forced; the writers and directors are trying to be quotable like Tombstone but none of it comes from the character. Like the shots, it just sounds “cool”. Again, Old Henry is less guilty of these crimes but as you can tell, I remain underwhelmed. It’s popularity, like that of Yellowstone‘s, is further proof that the American audience is hungry for Westerns. And if all they have is mediocre content to choose from, they will eat it up.
Watched on Amazon.