Tim Blake Nelson is a highly skilled and versatile actor (not to mention a terrific director), but for years now there has been one character he owns: the yokel, the snaggletoothed redneck runt, the leering hillbilly bumpkin who never met a big vocabulary word he didn’t like to chew on like tobacco. He has done variations on this role in films from “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” to “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” and the thing about it is that each time Nelson goes Full Hick, you don’t feel like he’s acting; you feel like he just is. In truth, he’s acting up a storm, never more so than in “Old Henry,” in which he gives what I can only call the “Citizen Kane” of Tim Blake Nelson hayseed varmint performances.
Here’s what elevates this one. Most of the backwoods turns on Nelson’s resume have been unabashedly comic. He knows these characters are funny, and he’s not shy about playing to the peanut gallery. But Henry McCarty, the scowling and taciturn farmer Nelson plays in “Old Henry,” isn’t someone we’re laughing at. He’s got a sneaky gravitas. He’s also not someone to mess with.
When we first see him, we’re cued to underestimate him, because he looks so mangy. Nelson sports a long mustache that slopes into his stubbled cheeks, greasy hair that hangs flat, with a dirty white shirt under his suspenders and, at times, a hat that threatens to swallow his head. He appears not to have bathed in about three weeks. Yet the closer you look, the more you notice, under the foliage, his pale face and eyes of woe, which narrow down to slits of anger. “Old Henry” is set in Oklahoma territory in 1906 (Nelson, in fact, is from Oklahoma), and Henry is a widower who lives with his teenage son, Wyatt (Gavin Lewis), in a shabby comfortable gray farmhouse that sits at the bottom of a sloping field. It’s just the two of them, which Wyatt isn’t happy about. He thinks they’re stranded in the middle of nowhere (which they kind of are), and that his pa is a dutiful dullard (which, at a glance, he seems to be). But Wyatt is underestimating Henry too.
The film opens with a burst of violence: a man is running away from three killers, and before long they shoot him down — and then Ketchum, the leader, having squeezed all the information he can out of him, strangles him with a rope, mostly for the fun of it. Stephen Dorff, who is such a good actor, plays Ketchum as a stone sociopath with a broad condescending grin. (He, too, likes to chew on big vocabulary words.)
“Old Henry,” written and directed by Potsy Ponciroli, is a slow-burn Western that sets up Henry against this crooked, remorseless trio. It’s all triggered when young Wyatt happens upon a riderless horse with blood on its saddle. Henry, going out to investigate, discovers a satchel full of cash and a man who’s been shot in the chest, Curry (Scott Haze), who he brings back to the farmhouse. The villains want to kill this fellow too. But Henry, though he looks at the cash and first says “Nope,” has an instinct to protect him. As he sets about doing that, we start to notice something about him. He’s not scared.
We also notice just how many things Henry knows how to do. He knows how to render a slaughtered hog, how to cover his own tracks, how to subdue a prisoner with half a dozen punches, how to staunch a bullet wound with witch hazel, how to hide himself in a field of wheat, and how to put his son in his place by speaking to him in drawling commands like “Why don’t you cool his fever instead of vaporizing on every thought that comes into your head?” Before long, the outlaws arrive, standing in front of the farmhouse, and Henry comes out to be porch to meet them. Holding a big pistol down at his side, Nelson, with a stern gaze, looks almost cool, like some bantam version of a ’70s outlaw rocker. But does he know what he’s up against?
It would be unfair to give away more of “Old Henry,” which is a rock-solid, off-the-beaten-path Western, one that’s been built as a kind of pedestal for Nelson’s performance. There are twists involving who all these violent men really are. Yet we know in our bones where the movie is going, and it’s a steady enjoyable ride, a touch prosaic at times, one that turns into a kind of minimalist chamber-room version of “Unforgiven,” with a surprisingly touching upshot. What we don’t know, and what the movie starts to drop clues about, is Henry himself. He’s every inch the noble gruff customer we see, but he’s also not quite what he seems. And the way Nelson plays it, with a charismatic gnarled conviction that deepens as the movie goes on, the revelation of who he is comes off as an eye-widening surprise, a joke, and a sly testament to how the landscape of the West might really have operated. “Old Henry” is about violence and redemption, fathers and sons, and the mythology that lives in all our hearts. Mostly, though, it’s about Tim Blake Nelson finding a new power in his backwoods passion.