I don’t often see movies I don’t think I’ll like. But sometimes, there comes a film with such strong “you gotta see this shit to believe it” hype that I can’t resist throwing my money into a fire pit and seeing it. Last year, that film was Sea of Trees, and this year it is Colin Trevorrow’s The Book of Henry. Just the trailer was made with astonishment at how this thing could possibly be, and when the reviews finally came out, they raised only more questions. So it was relatively easy to get me to part with $5 (god help you if you think I’m doing anything more than an early-afternoon matinee for this shit) and see this motherfucker. I’d say I recommend you do this too, except I’m not sure if this movie will kill me in seven days.
This review will be riddled with big-time SPOILERS, but I cannot encourage you enough to keep reading.
The Book of Henry is maybe above all a bargain. For the price of one ticket, you get three distinct bad movies, which connect to each other only vaguely, and one of which is one of the most awe-inspiring testaments to bad decision-making out there. But that’s a little bit away. First, there’s the first act, which seems like a kind of bad that’s all too familiar; the bad wiz-kid drama. Jaeden Lieberher, so good in Midnight Special, is here asked to not be a character, but instead an annoying conduit for $5 words and the occasional Eric Roth-level “profundity”. We know Henry is smart, because he handles his family’s stocks and uses big words and builds Rube Goldberg machines (and also has Jake Lloyd’s goggles from The Phantom Menace for some reason). We know his single mother, Susan (Naomi Watts), is immature because she plays God of War and doesn’t know stocks and occasionally gets drunk with her cartoon wino of a co-worker (Sarah Silverman). We know his brother Peter (Room‘s Jacob Tremblay) is cute because he says cute things. This is the base, stupid level this part of the movie operates on, and for a bit it seems like the movie will just be like other movies of this ilk, bad but not funny bad. But there are plenty of hints of what’s to come. Like the semi-Oedipal implications of Susan and Henry’s relationship, in which Henry is the man of the house, right down to, in one scene, lying in bed next to Susan. Or that, for a movie that’s setting up Susan to grow up and be a better parent, it can’t seem to make up its mind as to whether or not Susan is an arrested-development case or the loveliest mother you ever did see. Or the child abuse.
Henry recognizes the signs of abuse in his next-door neighbor Christina (Maddie Ziegler), presumably at the hands of her stepdad Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris), and yes, the child abuser character literally has “Sick” in his last name. Given the level the movie is operating on, we should be lucky he isn’t named Abe User. Not that we actually see any of this abe using. All we get is two scenes, with Lieberher and later with Watts, where they look out a window and all we see is Glenn opening the door to Christina’s room before Trevorrow immediately cuts to their shocked expressions and leaves it at that (also, could Glenn not spare a second by just closing the goddamn blinds before he abuses his stepdaughter?). But much more puzzling is Trevorrow not showing any other signs of abuse on her. We’re told she has bruises, but we never see them, nor do we see many of the emotional signs Henry lists as being telltales for abuse either. As far as the movie is concerned, all that happens when you’re abused is that you stop talking and start looking like Rooney Mara on the poster of Side Effects. All this is a serious problem when the movie suddenly takes a turn into a righteous, anti-child abuse revenge thriller, where the person who they’re saving has fewer lines and less to do than Obnoxious Classmate #1 and the person they’re going after mostly seems vaguely grouchy rather than evil (Trevorrow clearly hopes that Norris’s husky, bald frame and Breaking Bad baggage will be enough to suggest evil, because god knows the performance isn’t getting that or anything else across). It seems like it’s building up to a reveal of Glenn’s innocence, but nope, he’s just evil. Also, why the hell would you have the idea to combine a quirky dramedy about a really smart kid with a harrowing story of child abuse?
But anyway, Henry won’t take this awful, entirely off-screen abuse sitting down. He calls Child Protective Services, only to discover that, gasp, the CPS agent in the town is Glenn’s brother! In this part’s best/worst scene, he storms into the principal’s office to tell her to take his belief in her being abused seriously, treats her like a secretary who messed up his notes (when he enters the office, he yells “Damnit, Jeanine, what the hell is going on?”), and they yell spelling bee words at each other for what feels like a minute straight. It ends with him throwing some handy “What You Need to Know About Child Abuse” pamphlets in the air in frustration, and promptly going to a gun store in preparation for Glenn’s murder. Then he has precisely one headache before Susan calls 911 because he’s having a seizure that turns out to be caused by a brain tumor.
The second act, a cancer weepie dealing with Henry in the hospital as he dies, is even more shameless than the first (just look at the one scene outside of the family’s POV, in which a classmate of Henry’s yells at full volume about how Henry will make it out okay because he knows everything), features Henry basically telling Sarah Silverman that despite their insults, they ultimately just really want to fuck each other (Silverman seems to agree, and even kisses him on the lips for his troubles), and culminates in a bad taste death scene for the ages. Henry putters around his hospital room looking like he’s in the Kidz Bop version of the David Bowie “Lazarus” video, screaming that he wants to see the sky, before he dies in a perfect Pieta with Naomi Watts. After that, Watts recreates Susan Sarandon’s manic parody of grief from Elizabethtown (she drinks a customer’s Coke at the diner where she works! she makes dessert for every meal!) and has one immortal shot of her sadly playing video games before stumbling upon Henry’s murder-book with detailed instructions on why Glenn must be assassinated for the greater good, which begins the third act. Although the book ends up being much less of important than the tape recorder Susan also finds, which Henry snuck out of the hospital and went back home(?????????) to record bizarrely detailed instructions onto, including the type of sniper rifle Susan should use, proper sniping technique, and ways to forge documents so that Christina ends up in her care in the event of Norris’s death. Oh, and also Henry knew at the time (when, again, he had a bad case of the brain tumor, which was apparently about as harmful to his abilities as Tim Matheson’s “bone cancer” in Fletch) when exactly Watts will make an aside, how long that aside will last, and what the funniest response to that aside would be (although he can’t guess that Watts would monologue about Christina instead of practicing sniping at plywood). I would literally be here all day if I went through all the crazy shit he apparently either knew beforehand, found out, or did while he was, yet again, dying of a brain tumor (I’ll leave you with just one; he bought a new car for Susan), so I’ll move on from there.
The movie becomes more and more frenzied in its awfulness with each passing minute, veering madly between tones until it climaxes with maybe the worst cross-cutting montage of all time (it’s maybe enough to make Eisenstein roll over in his grave with such ferocity that he tunnels back in time and stops himself from being a filmmaker, just to prevent this from happening). There’s the requisite kids’ movie talent show, and it’s a race to see if the main character will make it in time, except it’s also a race to see if she can successfully murder Dean Norris. And her rushing to bury a bullet in ASAC Schrader’s brain is intercut with a kid burping the ABCs, another kid rapping about how he’s the “shiznit”, and tap dancers. This would take a director with nothing less than a magic touch for juggling tones to get right, and maybe it wouldn’t even work then, and it especially does not work in the hands of Trevorrow, who I think, if this film is in any way representative of his other two films (I was one of the few to successfully avoid Jurassic World), I can safely call a complete hack (there is barely a single interesting shot or visual idea to be had here).
Finally, Susan lures Glenn into the sweet spot by just whistling a little bit (which pisses him off so much that he grabs his pistol to confront the whistler), and then there is a dance from Christina. Ziegler broke out as a dancer in several Sia videos, and the bits of her dancing the viewer can discern between the overly fast cutting and absurd backlighting is good, but more important is that this, for reasons I cannot even begin to understand, makes the principal realize that she really has been abused. There appears to be something on her hands, which I took to be trickles of stage blood but which the estimable Todd VanDerWerff thought were bruises, but whatever they are, Ziegler’s movements and the cuts are so fast that whatever Trevorrow apparently wants us to see/know is completely incomprehensible. It reminded me of nothing less than that scene in Fire Walk With Me where Chris Isaak was able to perfectly understand the nonsense Gordon Cole and the FBI mime just told him (btw, that movie is an infinitely better, more moving, respectful, and scary look at abuse than this one could even dream of being).
Then comes the sniping itself, which is cut short by a development that makes “Martha” look like the height of sophisticated storytelling. Susan knocks into one of Henry’s Rube Goldberg machines and its purpose happens to be that it unfurls a roll of old family photos, which reminds Susan that he’s a kid and she shouldn’t be going to him for advice on how to assassinate their next door neighbor. Except, what the fuck was the purpose of this machine outside of its convenience to the plot? Is it another part of Henry’s masterplan, offering her the option of not going through with it? And why the fuck is that the thing that changes her mind, and not the fact that she’s committing a cardinal sin because of the crazed plan her 11-year-old came up with while he had a large mass in his brain? And it’s not like this is a new realization for her! Not five minutes earlier in the movie, she made the exact same point to Peter, that Henry may have been smart, but he was ultimately still just a kid. And also, Henry doesn’t need to be done for her to make this realization! He might as well be away at summer camp! What the fuck? WHAT the FUCK? What the FUCK?
There’s more. You see, Peter also performed at the talent show, and you bet that Susan makes it back just in time to see his act, which involves him “bringing back” Henry by unleashing a bunch of confetti snow out of a treasure chest. This is a callback to an earlier scene where Henry created a fake snowstorm in their house, but literally no one in the audience (including Susan) would have that knowledge (of course, everybody loves it and cries and applauds), and even with that knowledge, the viewer is still baffled, because that’s not what bringing someone back from the dead entails. Why couldn’t you just have him say “This is a trick my brother Henry taught me, I miss him so much”, or something like that? It makes more sense, and would be more likely to get the viewer emotional. Guys, this script has been in development for 20 years, and I’m fixing it half a day after I saw it.
Okay, I need to get to the ending now. Susan doesn’t shoot Glenn, and Glenn, more inexplicably, doesn’t shoot her with that pistol he brought (considering he brags to her about his power over the town and sees her carrying a sniper rifle as she tells him that she knows about his crimes). Glenn, instead, sees that the police sent by the school principal (because of, again, a wordless talent show performance) are coming for him, and shoots himself, because sure movie, why not cover suicide badly in addition to childhood cancer and child abuse? Following that, after some narration from Henry about why we need stories that has literally nothing to do with anything, Susan burns Henry’s tape and book and, through methods not even barely explained, Susan gets custody of Christine, and the final scene is Susan tucking her and Peter into bed like she did with Henry and Peter. Aw, sweet. Except wait.
Two things. One, Lee Pace plays Henry’s doctor in the film, and he is very obviously set up as a love interest to Susan in Henry’s absence. He even agrees to go to the talent show when Peter calls him and asks him to. But he’s not in these last scenes, and apparently not in Susan’s life. Why the fuck spend so much time with him if you’re not going to do the pay-off with him? If this was literally any other movie ever made, I might be willing to call this a subversion of that trope, but this movie can’t even pull off versions of most of its ideas, let alone in- or subversions. But this is even more important. In the tucking-in scenes early in the film, Henry didn’t like the stories Susan wrote to read for them before bedtime, and Henry and Peter disagreed about whether or not to leave the nightlight on or off and the door open or closed. But in this scene, Christina loves Susan’s story and she and Peter are simpatico on both the nightlight and the door. And one would expect the film to end with maybe one last shot of a picture of Henry, or Susan whispering “Good night Henry” as she sends the kids to sleep, but instead Henry is literally not mentioned again after that burning scene. So… I cannot be totally mistaken when I think that the impression this scene gives is that it was cool and good that Henry died because it allowed for Susan to trade in that child for a better, nicer one. Guys. Guys. Guys. Guys. Gusy. Guus.
There is much talk online about whether or not this movie’s scathing reaction will cause Trevorrow to lose his job directing Star Wars Episode IX. Even if that were to happen, that would not go far enough. This movie should ideally bar Trevorrow from from working on Hollywood movies and indie movies, working at all chain restaurants, owning a gun, and flying on any airline.
You should still see it, though.