The Book of Henry
(SPOILERS) Colin Trevorrow, already the object of abject enmity from some quarters for his Jurassic World sequel, and then more so due to the (eventually retracted) engagement to direct Episode IX, received whole new levels of scorn for The Book of Henry, his smaller more personal movie that now slots between Jurassic expeditions. While that response (the final one, although the second at least made some sense too, and as for the first, well it’s only a Jurassic Park movie) makes some sense, given the almost deliriously misconceived nature of the picture, it does tend to ignore that in its own entirely messed-up, wrong-headed way, The Book of Henry is very watchable.
Trevorrow even felt he had to issue a statement in response to the opprobrium the picture provoked (“I do stand by the movie. I know it’s something I am very proud of, and everyone who made it is very proud”) and while I can’t say I’m much of a fan of his previous pictures, I do tend to think good for him for holding his ground (of course, this came before he was dumped off what has recently been titled Rise of Skywalker; I’m not sure the compensation of Jurassic World III necessarily heals that wound). Trevorrow’s track record (in particular Jurassic World) ensured most of the malicious missives were aimed his way, and he undoubtedly has to take responsibility for bringing the project to the big screen, but the author of the screenplay is Gregg Hurwitz, and one has to wonder what unseemly scenarios ever befell him that he came up with such a deranged premise.
One might suggest he’s a brawn-first macho type who pays little attention to the fine print, boasting of how he’s swum with sharks, hung out with SEALS, the CIA and enrolled in mind-control cults, but he cites research as everything, so I don’t know if he’s met the lizard rulers of the world (he worked on the V reboot) or, in this case, hung out with child geniuses. His most popular series (Orphan X) concerns a Bourne-esque hero trained from childhood in a government assassination programme, so it may not have been such a stretch to move from that to a preternatural, terminally-ill kid planning the murder of his child-abuser police commissioner next-door neighbour. Except that The Book of Henry was written nearly twenty years earlier, so perhaps it simply informed later tastelessness. The terminal illness gets in the way of Henry’s plans, so post the fact he enlists his mother, a woman-child gamer who depends on him for all the boring adult stuff like sorting family finances, to do the deed.
It’s such a twisted scenario, you have to give lunatic credit to Hurwitz; it’s the sort of thing Nicolas Cage’s twin brother might have thought up in Adaptation, the sort of thing you shake your head at the mere premise of and then sells to a studio for a mint. Ostensibly, it’s a story about taking responsibility, pointing the finger at mother Susan (Naomi Watts), who at one point dissuades Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) from intervening in a couple’s supermarket altercation on the grounds of it being none of their business (one of the few moments where he’s asking her rather than telling, but tellingly disagreeing with the response, voicing the view that apathy, rather than violence, is the worst thing in the world). Yet she is then persuaded by Henry’s notebook and tape – having voiced the view “We are not murdering the police commissioner and that is final!” – that the only solution to Glenn’s (Dean Norris) crimes is murder. Ultimately, she decides against this (but not before she’s purchased a high-powered sniper’s rifle with a night site and laid a trap for Glenn), because Henry is (was) “just a child” (the implication being that, as immense as his intellect is, his moral framework still required some development).
So Susan has to be a rather frivolous airhead for this to work. And yet, no matter how many lunch boxes full of cakes and sweets – including the sandwich fillings – she gives her other son Peter (Jacob Tremblay) in her grieving state, Watts struggles to play the character other than as a good mother; no part of Susan’s motivation really scans, but then the movie as a whole doesn’t exist in any kind of verisimilitudinous state. We’re asked to believe that Henry, with his Rube Goldberg brain and penetrating perceptiveness, couldn’t think of an alternate scheme to bring Glenn to justice? (Perhaps the most alarming element of her parental poise is that Susan only asks what Peter is going to do for his school magic show the day before; how could she not have known this? That, or ignoring Henry imploring her that, with $800k in a chequing account, she doesn’t need to work at the diner anymore.)
It has been suggested too, with some legitimacy, that Christina (Maddie Ziegler), the victim in all this, is little more than a cypher, granted no agency of her own, except, extraordinarily, in managing to make a formal complaint against her stepfather through the medium of interpretive dance during the climactic school talent show (to be fair, this is entirely in keeping with the extraordinary leaps in logic the movie makes; Tonya Pinkins’ principal has previously rejected Henry’s claims regarding Glenn, but one look at Christina’s performance makes it clear he was right all along). I think the issue there, however, is a more general one of the dubiousness of capitalising on such subject matter for the purposes of a thriller, at least unless you’re very sure of the ground you’re treading.
It isn’t as if the picture isn’t littered with dubiousness, of course, perhaps most notably Henry’s “romantic” antagonism towards Susan’s best friend Sheila (Sarah Silverman), which culminates in the latter kissing the hospitalised, stricken Henry on the lips (sometimes Hollywood needs to ask “Would you play the same scene with the genders reversed?” when they’re fixating on their memories of teenage fantasies).
Nevertheless, there are elements here that seem to have incited ire that I found fine, most notably Henry himself. Had he been played by Haley Joel Osment (as surely he would have been, had this been put into production when Hurwitz first wrote it), doubtless I’d have found him insufferably precocious, but Martell (better known for his role in It: Chapter One) manages to leaven the knows-better quality, such that even the sequence with Lee Pace’s kindly doctor, where they talk shop on the terminal diagnosis, worked for me.
I couldn’t exactly commend the picture for its unhinged narrative choices, then, but the Hitchockian flavour of the second half is definitely not the most inspired way of dealing with the balls the writer has thrown in the air, even with taped Henry miraculously anticipating his mom’s every move (has he been watching Blink?) Hurwitz has said that the picture represents one of his tried-and-trusted avenues “where you meet an ordinary person on the absolute worst day of their life and they have to overcome impossible odds”, but I think I’d have found it more engaging if he hadn’t taken the left turn of offing his lead character, so sticking with his other favoured theme, “a defined hero or heroine”.
As I say, I’m not Trevorrow’s biggest fan, not because I believe he’s some kind of devil incarnate of modern cinema but simply because he tends to make mediocre movies. In that regard, The Book of Henry is something of a game-changer. It’s many things, many of them not complimentary, but it isn’t mediocre. You don’t get thrown off Star Wars for being mediocre (ask Lord and Miller), even if it’s entirely unclear what Kathleen Kennedy’s qualitive criteria are for employment in the first place. And Trevorrow can rest easy in the knowledge that there’s no way a picture this warped doesn’t become a cult classic, the key ingredient being that, for all the dubious or outright bad choices it makes, it’s never boring.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.