With the gorgeous and stark grasslands of Waterford, Tennessee, standing in for 1906 Oklahoma, “Old Henry” opens with a scene worthy of Clint Eastwood’s films of the Gothic West such as “Pale Rider” and “Unforgiven”. Henry (Tim Blake Nelson) plays a widowed farmer and his estranged son Wyatt (Gavin Lewis), living out their days in a small, isolated patch of fertile land from which they scratch out a meager living. Things however, take an unexpected turn when a grievously injured stranger named Curry (Scott Haze) stumbles into their midst with a cash loot. Henry nurses the man back to health but is suspicious of Curry and the story he conjures. Soon enough a posse of unsavory characters headed by their vicious ringleader Ketchum (Stephen Dorff) turns up on their doorstep and all proverbial hell break loose.
By this point, we’ve come to suspect there’s more to Old Henry than meets the eye. He’s adept at tending to Curry’s wounds, he punches out Curry with fast efficiency at one point, he’s lightning-fast with a gun and he sure isn’t acting like a scared farmer when he’s told there’s a trio of killers headed this way. Writer-director Potsy Ponciroli does a magnificent job of creating a slow build of tension, punctuated by the occasional and stunning moment of violence. (There’s even a measure of dark and grisly humor, e.g., when a body is disposed of and hungry pigs are fed, and those are not disconnected occurrences.)
With beautiful, widescreen cinematography by John Matysiak, impeccable production design and a pitch-perfect score from Jordan Lehning, “Old Henry” is a well-paced and engrossing story — and that’s even before there’s a revelation that’s great (that we saw coming as soon as we heard a certain character’s name). The ensemble is uniformly excellent, but this is Tim Blake Nelson’s showcase from the moment he appears onscreen, and he delivers world-weary greatness every step of the way.