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‘Old Henry’ Is Old-School Cinema In All The Best Ways

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At a moment when Hollywood tries to either one-up itself on stale leftist messaging or on over-the-top special effects, Hideout Pictures’ “Old Henry” stands out as understated, entertaining, and even compelling.

Following massive blockbusters like Marvel’s three-hour “Endgame” (which not only did I not watch, I then couldn’t even remember whether I had watched it) and the Bond franchise’s almost-three-hour “No Time To Die,” “Old Henry” clocks in at only an hour and 38 minutes. Unlike the exhausting, make-your-eyes-glaze-over excess of movies like Marvel’s, “Old Henry” is old-school cinema, relying on a clever plot, compelling acting, and memorable characters.

Tim Blake Nelson stars as grizzled farmer Henry McCarty, who — along with his son Wyatt (Gavin Lewis) — finds a nearly dead man with a bag of money and takes him in. Both the stranger and a posse of men who show up looking for him claim to be lawmen from nearby Woods County, and accuse the other of being dangerous outlaws. The interactions that follow, and the twists they introduce, hold the audience’s interest without exploding planets, otherworldly villains, unrealistic car chases, or steamy sex scenes (there isn’t a single woman in the nine-person cast).

The movie’s simplicity makes it almost come off in the style of a play. Almost the entire movie takes place on the McCarty farm or in the surrounding fields, and the plot moves forward with only a handful of characters, making it seem easily adaptable to the stage. A stage version wouldn’t require any high-tech gadgetry or greenscreens, just a few prop guns and the accouterments of a run-down cabin.

Set in 1906, “Old Henry’s” style fits its era. Like an Ernest Hemingway novel, the main character is endearing without being full-blown likable. (I couldn’t help thinking of Santiago from “The Old Man and the Sea” near the end of the film.)

As the movies of Hollywood’s golden age assumed viewers would be intrigued enough by the plot to overlook the era’s shortcomings in special effects, “Old Henry” assumes the plot is compelling enough that extensive special effects aren’t needed. If anything, they would detract from this simple story of a protagonist who appears to be a simple man.

The movie’s twists are simple yet clever, harkening back to the style of American film legends like Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock’s most iconic films are notoriously simple in style (think of “Rear Window,” filmed from a single room), which amplifies the brilliance of each plot’s unexpected surprises. I won’t go so far as to say that “Old Henry” deserves a seat next to the Hitchcock classics, but it does appear to draw from Hitchcock’s methods, and that’s a strike in its favor.

One of the twists — fair warning, spoilers from here on out — reveals that unassuming farmer Henry is none other than outlaw Billy the Kid, trying to eke out a quiet living in retirement while the world assumes he’s been killed. His late-born desire to settle down as an honest man is thwarted by the antics of random outlaws who just happen to show up and won’t leave him alone, and Henry sees his since-repented life of crime catch up to him. Rather than being a single big twist that the film spends the rest of its time overselling, however, Henry’s identity is one of several unexpected turns that crop up as the story plays out.

After a climactic scene in whcih Henry uses his larger-than-life prowess to fight his way out of hopeless odds, the movie leaves you relieved, only to throw one more twist that leaves Henry dying on his farmhouse floor. It’s an ironic tragedy that has the audience waiting for the happy ending to work out until the very last minute, only to be disappointed by an ending that’s still somehow profound — evocative of 20th-century American greats like Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” or Victor Fleming’s “Gone With The Wind” (based, of course, on Margaret Mitchell’s novel of the same name).

Despite its serious material and drawing from a pantheon of classics, “Old Henry” doesn’t take itself too seriously, unlike the painfully self-aware flicks that Hollywood has lately turned out. Tasteful cinematography combines idyllic autumn panoramas with gritty and even ugly realism — Tim Blake Nelson is no charming, crooked-grinned John Wayne, but that’s what makes him perfect for the role. Like the rest of the film, the soundtrack is understated, and winsome as a result.

“Old Henry” may not be an epic or a big box office moneymaker (it only aired at 30 theaters before moving to streaming platforms), but it isn’t intended to be. And because it doesn’t try to do too much, what it does is refreshingly good.