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'Old Henry' Honors The Western Genre While Offering Surprises

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

When the movie "Old Henry" premiered at the Venice Film Festival a few weeks ago, it was billed as an elevated Western. Critic Bob Mondello says pretty quickly, it becomes clear that what elevates "Old Henry" is actor Tim Blake Nelson.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Oklahoma Territory, 1906 - a quick prologue tells us that the West is still wild, and the three men with badges aren't necessarily good guys.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OLD HENRY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Where'd he get to?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, screaming).

MONDELLO: Then the scene shifts to Henry's homestead, an isolated farm where the grizzled title character has settled in, buried his beloved wife and raised his son Wyatt to teenagehood (ph), more or less without contact with the outside world. That ends today, when a riderless horse comes onto their property. Wyatt spots it first...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OLD HENRY")

GAVIN LEWIS: (As Wyatt) Huh?

MONDELLO: ...And also spots the blood on the saddle.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OLD HENRY")

LEWIS: (As Wyatt) Looky (ph) here. What do you think happened? Some kind of robbery, shootout?

TIM BLAKE NELSON: (As Henry) Shut your nonsense. Let's go look for the rider.

MONDELLO: Henry heads out to investigate and brings back a near-lifeless stranger with a bullet in his chest and a saddlebag bursting with cash. This is probably the moment to note that responsible father and farmer Henry looks like a no-account varmint - stubbled, scrawny, eyes as heavy as his Oklahoma drawl, which is to say he's played by Tim Blake Nelson. But he's not a no-account. There is something in that cold stare, and when those three men with stars on their chests show up - well, he's not someone they should tangle with.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OLD HENRY")

MONDELLO: (As Henry) Can I help you?

STEPHEN DORFF: (As Sheriff Sam Ketchum) I'm Sheriff Sam Ketchum. This here's my deputy. We've been scouting for a man on the run.

MONDELLO: You know the drill. So does Henry, and he's skeptical.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OLD HENRY")

NELSON: (As Henry) Say you're a sheriff. How's it I don't recognize you?

DORFF: (As Sheriff Ketchum) We're from way over Woods County. You're not fixing to shoot any of us with that pistol, are you?

NELSON: (As Henry) So far, I've got no reason to.

DORFF: (As Sheriff Ketchum) That's good news.

MONDELLO: Ketchum, played by Stephen Dorff, leaves without pushing, much to the surprise of the men he calls deputies.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OLD HENRY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As deputy) Because of some shaky old farmer?

DORFF: (As Ketchum) He didn't hold that pistol like any farmer I've ever seen.

MONDELLO: Henry's son was startled by what he saw of his dad out there, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OLD HENRY")

LEWIS: (As Wyatt) Who are you?

NELSON: (As Henry) I'm who I am.

LEWIS: (As Wyatt) But you're always preaching about being honest.

NELSON: (As Henry) I've done things I wish I could take back - a long time before you, before your mom - things that you've got no business hearing.

MONDELLO: Things that will make the film come together with a gratifying snap, though. Writer-director Potsy Ponciroli combines his redemption-by-shootout story with teen rebellion bits and myths of the Old West, knowing that all those elements are familiar and time-honored but that, like Old Henry himself and the old pro playing Henry, they can still pack surprises.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.