The Book of Henry is certainly not a good film, but calling it a bad one doesn’t seem to fit; it falls short of the mark, but not in the way a truly bad film does. Rather, it fails to answer two vital questions—who is it for, and what is it about?—and it’s hard to imagine anyone being satisfied with the end result.
Spoilers. TW: child abuse, suicide.
NOTE: I strongly recommend, if the full plot of the film has not been spoiled to you and you have any interest in seeing it, that you do so without reading further. I saw the film knowing what would happen; I wish I could’ve gone in cold.
Let’s begin by looking at the poster. Rather a good poster, actually. In evoking Drew Struzan, it evokes the whimsy of Spielberg’s family films. It suggests a magical, sentimental tone, youthful imagination, and precocious adventures. And the film itself follows suit, at first; Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher) is as precocious as they come, managing his mother’s finances (so well that, according to him, she no longer needs to work), building Rube Goldbergian contraptions, and doing things like pretending to scale a Himalayan mountainside in the upstairs hallway to amuse his little brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay).
He also lives in a perfectly whimsical small town where his mother Susan (Naomi Watts) works at a quirky little diner with her quirkily alcoholic best friend Sheila (Sarah Silverman), next door to a whimsically idealized girl-next-door, Christina (Maddie Ziegler) and her stepfather, Glenn (Dean Norris). And in the woods behind his (mansion-level) home is a perfectly whimsical treehouse, which in reality would probably require contractors to build…but this being Henry’s world, he probably did it all over a long weekend.
Then he discovers that Sheila is being abused by Glenn, but his position as the town’s police commissioner enables him to evade justice. While developing a plan to deal with Glenn on his own, Henry, previously plagued by headaches, has a seizure and is discovered to have an inoperable brain tumor. Not long afterwards, he dies, but tells Peter to make sure his mother reads his red notebook – the titular “Book of Henry.”
The plan is that Susan will kill Glenn with a sniper rifle, and when she discovers for herself that the legal system will do nothing to help, she decides to follow it, and using the book and a set of recordings prepared by Henry (which are so foresightful as to be supernatural), she is soon preparing to do the deed and adopt Christina using forged papers.
Did those last two paragraphs throw you off a bit? I can only imagine how the unprepared viewer would react; it’s not quite “No, I am your father,” but I would have much rather not known just how insane this film gets before seeing it – though, not knowing that, would I have bothered?
Not that the film doesn’t have problems before that point. As noted above, the whole tone of the story and characters is pretty damned twee and quirky. There’s a lot of cutesy, catchphrase-laden banter among the Carpenters; Susan nicknames them “Enchilada No. 1” and “Enchilada No. 2”, and every time Henry urges her to replace her rusty old station wagon, she replies (with the boys chiming in after a few words) “There’s nothing wrong with driving an old car!” Moments like Henry’s “climbing” up the hallway-mountainside (using plungers as hooks and wearing the steampunk goggles shown on the poster) likewise attempt to bolster the whimsy of the material.
Henry is a garden-variety precocious young boy; he’s ostensibly a genius, but aside from his contraptions and his money-management skills, we see little evidence of it – even his big plan isn’t really that complex. And when he condescends to his classmates and teachers, it’s pretty hard to side with him; he just comes off as snotty. And for her own part, Susan sporadically behaves like an overgrown teenager (her favorite pastime is playing first-person shooters, which could have been used for dramatic irony in a cleverer film), but never in a way that compromises her family’s comfort or Henry’s ambitions. The characters’ natures suit the demands of the plot, not the other way around.
Sheila (clearly meant as the comic relief) deserves special mention. She’is, as previously noted, shown to be an alcoholic; at one point, after she misses work, the Carpenters go by her home and find her passed out in the backyard, but the moment is played for knowing laughs. (Susan even joins her for a glass of wine.) She also has a running gag with Susan wherein they joke about having to deal with enormous amounts of wealth and property; ironically, given how well the Carpenters live, Susan is not that far off from such wealth. And while Henry is in the hospital, she visits him (calling him “Hank” as she always does, despite his continual corrections), and kisses him on the mouth before leaving.
Do you get the picture? There’s a lot of would-be charming and heartwarming material here, which makes the murder plot all the more baffling as a plot device; could this (or the theme of abuse, or the F-bomb dropped partway through) possibly have been thought of as suitable material for a family film? Conversely, with all this cutesiness, could anyone have considered this a satisfactory film for adults? As an adult (who can certainly appreciate a good kid’s film), I can say it falls short on both fronts.
So having shown that the film fundamentally fails to understand who it’s trying to appeal to, let’s turn our attention to the other question: What is it about? More than that, what is it trying to say? What is its message, if any?
If there is a message, I really couldn’t tell you what it is. The tagline on the poster, “Never leave things undone,” is about the best I’ve got. It’s certainly less problematic than what might be the key exchange in the film, coming as Henry criticizes Susan for not intervening when they witnessed an episode of spousal abuse at the grocery store:
HENRY: There are worse things than violence.
Even if this is the key theme of the film, it does quite a bad job of illustrating it; that much of the film features a grown woman participating in a murder plot orchestrated by her 11-year-old child fatally undermines it. And that’s without mentioning the ending (which I will get to shortly).
The film devotes some energy to making Henry some kind of Christ figure; his last name, the name of his hometown (Calvary), his wholly absent father, and the Pietà-esque tableaux formed when Susan cradles him as he dies all play into this, as do the vaguely Biblical title and Henry’s essentially conversing with Susan from beyond the grave. (Oh, and I just remembered that Henry’s grave is never shown. Whether this was meant symbolically or was just plain oversight is uncertain.) But these really add up to nothing.
If the film was trying to be a tale of childhood imagination and adventure (as the posters suggest), it certainly fails in that regard; there’s not nearly enough of it. And if the film is trying to be some kind of thriller, it goes without saying that it is wholly unsuccessful at generating suspense or thrills.
Given that Gregg Hurwitz’ script has been floating around Hollywood for close to 20 years (though how much of the finished film is his and how much is director Colin Trevorrow’s is unclear), it’s possible that the real theme of The Book of Henry was lost long ago; one could reasonably suggest that the clashing tones and erratically developed elements of the story betray its long journey to the screen.
Of course, that doesn’t excuse the story’s fiendishly stupid resolution. Having set the plan in motion, having lured Glenn into her crosshairs (everyone else is conveniently at an elementary school talent show), Susan (who is preparing to snipe Glenn from the treehouse, of all places) accidentally sets off one of Henry’s Rube Goldberg contraptions, which, for God knows what reason, reveals a selection of Polaroids chronicling his time on Earth. As his voice urges her to take the shot, she, spurred to some kind of revelation, refuses, saying “You’re just a child.”
Instead, she confronts Glenn (who is rightly suspicious of her having a sniper rifle in her possession), telling him she knows of his abuse of Christina and that she will go to the press and to higher authorities to ensure he is brought to justice. He goes home and calls his brother (who’s in charge of the town’s social services), presumably to arrange Susan’s discrediting, but the brother reveals that the school’s principal has filed an abuse complaint against him, making a scandal unavoidable.
In fact, during the talent show, Christina’s ballet routine, and the anguished facial expressions she makes during it, finally convince the principal (who previously rejected Henry’s demands to file a claim on the basis of insufficient evidence) to call the authorities. Glenn, finding himself about to be arrested, commits suicide. Meanwhile, Susan disposes of the rifle (as Henry intended), and returns to the talent show in time to see Peter do a magic trick.
I should note that while watching the film in theaters, at this point the lights in the auditorium came on and an employee wandered in with a broom, not realizing that the film was not yet over…or perhaps not expecting anyone to be there. (There were about half a dozen people in the theater including myself; not bad for 10:35 on a Sunday morning.)
Anyway, Peter’s magic trick promises to bring the late Henry into the theater, and flinging open a chest, he sets off a a burst of artificial snow, deluging and delighting the audience, and from which Susan emerges to give him a hug. After the show, Glenn’s death is revealed, and using the forged papers Susan is able to adopt Christina so that they and Peter can live happily ever after…and it’s hinted that Henry’s surgeon, Dr. Daniels (Lee Pace) and Susan might just get together later on down the line.
Oh, and I should mention how the talent show features one kid rapping horribly (and dropping the mic afterwards), and another belch-singing, among other things…all of which are intercut with Susan’s preparing to kill Glenn in cold blood.
Colin Trevorrow has had quite the career to date. His first feature, Safety Not Guaranteed, was wonderful (I gave it ****), and his second, Jurassic World, was flawed, but enjoyable…and a massive hit. He apparently was planning to do The Book of Henry as his follow-up to Safety, but the Jurassic World assignment took precedence. Amazingly, the reception to Henry has been so bad that some Internet wags have suggested that it may cost Trevorrow the director’s chair for Star Wars: Episode IX. It almost certainly won’t…but he’s lucky he nailed that gig down first.
Certainly, his direction on Henry does not make a compelling case for his abilities. He obviously fails the reconcile the film’s basic tonal issues, he never generates much in the way of magic or tension, and his staging is, for the most part, nothing special. Henry’s death scene does achieve some pathos (he begs Susan, “Let me see the sky”), but if such a scene didn’t, it would be grounds for drumming the director right out of Hollywood.
What strengths Henry has lie mostly with its cast and its score. Jaeden Lieberher has yet to match his surprisingly excellent turn in St. Vincent, but he has more to work with here than in the disappointing Midnight Special, and although he can’t transcend Henry’s fundamental contrivances, neither is he completely defeated by them.
Better are Watts and Tremblay. Watts falters at times (her final confrontation with Norris is pretty bad), but elsewhere she is at least able to suggest the lingering traces of adolescence in Susan and her difficulty in coping with Henry’s death. It’s not one of her great performances, but for the most part she does all right. Tremblay isn’t nearly as good as he was in Room (though it goes without saying that he had much, much, much better material to work with there), but he does a good job when he can, and one wishes the film didn’t tend to forget about him.
Silverman is fair, though she can do little with the creaky quips she’s given; Norris manages to suggest a bit of menace, but that’s about all he gets to do; Pace is affable but likewise given little to work with; and Ziegler, not helped by how utterly one-dimensional of a character Christina is, is fairly wooden.
Michael Giacchino’s score is actually quite pleasant. It doesn’t hit the heights of his own best work, let alone John Williams’ but it enhances the film whenever it appears – and is frankly better than the film deserves.. It’s worth noting that Steve Nicks contributed an original song, “Your Hand I Will Never Let it Go”; it’s good enough to where, when Watts sings it partway through the film, I assumed it was simply a classic rock song I just couldn’t quite identify.
Lastly, I want to mention the animated credits, which are modest but quite pleasing; they are easily the most wholly satisfactory element of the film, and credit is due to whoever designed them.
There’s not much credit to go around outside of it, though. A few good performances and scattered decent scenes don’t change the fact that The Book of Henry leaves itself high and dry by not knowing what it’s saying or who it’s saying it to. It is one of the more baffling, and arguably one of the sadder misfires in recent Hollywood. Perhaps posterity will be kinder to it than I have been.