Harlan Jacobson Reviews Three New Westerns
Old Henry, Power of the Dog and The Harder They Fall aren’t your great grandpa or grandma’s cowboy movies. They all have good guys and bad guys in tall hats, long guns, mountains, deserts, scrub brush, horses, sheriffs, saddlebags of cash, towns and farms made out of balsa wood sets from 100-plus years ago. What’s exciting, however, is how all three films put the Western to contemporary use.
In Old Henry, Tim Blake Nelson plays Henry McCarty, a scripture quoting farmer in Oklahoma in 1906, the year before Oklahoma becomes a state. It’s also when the old west ends, and the modern era arrives.
The script written by director Potsy Ponciroli, who directed the series Still the King with Billy Ray Cyrus, slips a what-if into the cracks of history: Henry McCarty is a name you sharp-eyed students of the Old West will recognize not as an alias but where a legend began. The rest of us can track McCarty down easily enough on Wikipedia. Or you can just let Ponciroli’s story take you there—it’s built on the myth that his central character did not die in 1881, as widely believed, but hid out for a quarter of a century, married, was widowed – true, there are no women in this film who ain’t already dead – and raised him a teenage son, Wyatt, not like Wyatt Earp but Wyatt is this kid so up in my grill? The son is played by newcomer Gavin Lewis like all teenage sons: right on track as a restless, curious pain in the ass when the story begins and more adult than he bargained on as it plays out.
Stephen Dorff shows up at Henry’s farm – says he’s a sheriff named “Ketchum” leading a possible posse of bad looking dudes in hot pursuit of Scott Haze as a crook named Curry on the run with a saddlebag full of cash. Curry is wounded and claims he’s the real sheriff. Old Henry then faces a modern dilemma: the Truth exists but is a stranger. Country & Western star Trace Adkins is the very credible uncle Al who lives on the next spread over, with the deepest bass voice you never hear sing in character.
Tim Blake Nelson is at the top of my list of current character actors and takes McCarty way past the work he did for the Coens as Buster Scruggs and all the way back to the old gunmen who have one more fight in them -- Gary Cooper in High Noon, Alan Ladd in Shane, John Wayne in Who Shot Liberty Valance -- to do the right thing on behalf of the new world trying to be born.
A simple rule here applies: when the lead in a film is a great character actor like Tim Blake Nelson, dime to a doughnut the film has a good shot at quiet greatness. You can see Old Henry streaming now.
I saw Kiwi-born, Aussie director Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog at the Telluride Film Festival Labor Day, and while it’s the kind of broad stroke, over-heated storytelling reminiscent of 1950’s melodrama that I normally don’t like, I have to say that by the time it all wrapped up, I admired Campion’s and novelist Thomas Savage’s project: unpack just what’s at the back of the straighter than straight male’s fear of the feminine. You don’t see that every day in a Western, although Chloe Zhao recently did it better to my taste in The Rider in 2018.
Power of the Dog starts in Montana in 1925, and is peopled with actors I like: Benedict Cumberbatch, sometimes, here as the last Marlboro man’s man who can break a horse, Jesse Plemons, as his stolid brother, a conventional family and business man, Kirsten Dunst, as Plemons’ new wife with her teen son, Kodi-Smit McPhee as Peter, who erases the line between masculine and feminine. It’s a long wait for this film’s climax that comes out of the barn, but ultimately peters out after showing us some broad strokes. Watchable but it plods instead of trots to a finish.
Finally, The Harder They Fall, on Netflix, by writer-director Jeymes Samuel with a little assist by screenwriter Boaz Yakin, has nothing to do with any of the historical black characters it draws from all over the late 1800’s American map into a 140-minute shoot ‘em up that plays out like a complete mashup between 70’s Superfly, a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western, gangsta, and something by Quentin Tarantino. When the film begins, Idris Elba as Rufus Buck bursts into a quiet ranch at family dinnertime, kills the couple—wife first--and orphans their little boy, Nat Love. Pointedly, he carves a cross in the boy’s forehead with a big Bowie knife before he leaves. Twenty years later, Jonathan Majors as the now grown-up Nat Love is on the lookout for Buck in the truly wild, wild Black West. Everything flows thence through 19th Century bandits who connect to the viewer more as South Central than as the great Southwest some 140 years ago.
Part of the Netflix sell on the film is that all the central characters are historical. That’s like Samuel making a baseball movie of an all-star game with Jackie Robinson, Derek Jeter, Aaron Judge, Hank Aaron, Minnie Minoso, Ernie Banks, Satchel Paige, Reggie Jackson, Josh Bell, Elston Howard, Jackie Bradley, and Willie Stargell on one side, and Ken Griffey Jr, Barry Bonds, Mookie Betts, Frank Robinson, Cool Papa Bell, Don Newcombe, Tim Anderson, Bob Gibson, Joe Morgan, Willie Mays, Andrew McCutcheon and Rickie Henderson on the other. And having them all beat each other to death with their bats, save two or three who ride outta Redwood City to a fork in the road like they do in an all-black cowboy movie like this one. The characters start somewhere in history but are really fictional launch pads for the creative impulses of the director, like the comic book adolescent Tarantino did idiotically in Inglorious Basterds (sic) and masterfully in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood.
While the story is set in the late 1800s, the topic is not slavery but the unfettered appetite for wealth and score settling in the Jim Crow years. (This film bears no resemblance to the 1956 boxing movie of the same name with Humphrey Bogart and Rod Steiger.) This Harder They Fall lets all the wild horses run free off the cliffs of revenge. Like Old Henry, the story uses elevated 19th Century stage grammar but here cuts it with phrases and double-takes straight outta Compton. When the guns and hatchets finally turn everyone into splatter bags, the rhythm of carnage cuts through the verbiage snicker snack. British singer-songwriter turned film director Samuel ain’t called The Bullitts for nothin’, and his soundtrack is all bullets.
Samuel stuffed the film too with the most beautiful black cast ever – Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, Damon Wayans, Jr, Danielle Deadwyler, Regina King, LaKeith Stanfield, Dewanda Wise and Delroy Lindo. it’s like the Ziegfeld Follies in there but where everyone is packin’ heat. Relax, I say, what’s not to like?
Old Henry, Power of the Dog, and The Harder They Fall each throw a roundhouse punch at the end you may not see coming. They’re movies built on the big reveal — a story architecture that addresses the true and increasingly elevated concerns we bring from the street into the theatre now: Who are those guys and what will they do to me? Old Henry and Power of the Dog tease you with the answers, while The Harder they Fall just pauses at the end to explain it all. That’s the difference between art and commerce.