‘The Book of Henry’ Review: One of the Most Twisted Movies I Have Ever Seen
I will give Focus Features this: the trailer for The Book of Henry is not misleading. When I first saw it, I couldn’t believe that was the movie. How was a movie about a precocious, 11-year-old who’s helping to raise his little brother and his immature mom also a film about the mom trying to assassinate their next-door neighbor because he’s molesting his stepdaughter? Those are two completely different movies. It’s like blending Capri Sun with absinthe. And yet that’s pretty much the movie director Colin Trevorrow made. He plays Gregg Hurwitz’ script completely straight, and what could have been a story about a child unable to come to terms with evil in the world instead becomes a dehumanizing mess that rides its high concept straight to hell.
Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) is a boy genius looking after his irresponsible mother Susan (Naomi Watts) and little brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay). While Susan spends her evenings playing Gears of War and getting drunk with her co-worker Sheila (Sarah Silverman), Henry is taking care of the finances, playing the stock market, and building Rube Goldberg machines. He’s also trying to help his neighbor Christina (Maddie Ziegler), who’s being sexually abused by her stepfather, the police commissioner Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris). Henry tries to play by the rules and report the crime, but no one will confront the powerful commissioner of a small, peaceful town, so he takes it upon himself to rid the world of Glenn. However, due to unforeseen circumstances, he must hand the task of murdering Glenn off to Susan.
The Book of Henry feels like it started out as a much smaller, more personal story that went horribly off the rails in an attempt to make it more compelling. A story about a single mom with a smart son and a normal son isn’t “big” enough on its own, so it sets up the whole plot about “Well, what if the smart son realized the girl he had a crush on was being raped by her stepfather and set up an elaborate plan to kill the stepfather?” At that point, you’ve pretty much not only left reality, you’ve also left the whole “The son is really smart” part because Henry has come to the same conclusion any dummy would have: vigilantism. Henry is supposedly brilliant, but his solution to Christina’s situation is that if the system doesn’t work, you have to take matters into your own hands.
That conclusion makes Susan out to be an even worse mom than the movie presents her to be. On its own terms, The Book of Henry would like us to view Susan as irresponsible and immature, but her heart is in the right place. She loves both her sons, shows them lots of affection, and chooses to go to work even though Henry has already made her rich on the stock market. However, when it comes to teaching her sons right from wrong, Susan seems to be at a loss. It’s a tough lesson that there’s evil in the world we can’t do anything about, but the movie is so hellbent on patronizing Susan at every turn that when Henry remarks that apathy is worse than violence, she has no answer for him.
In order to dig into the film’s larger problems, I’m going to have to dig into spoilers, so if you’re determined to see The Book of Henry, stop reading now.
The “unforeseen circumstances” that stop Henry from pursuing his mission is that he has an inoperable brain tumor. While he’s in the hospital, he tells Peter that he must give Susan Henry’s red notebook. After Henry dies, Peter gives Susan the notebook, and the notebook has instructions on how to kill Glenn and get away with it. While Susan is obviously reluctant, she decides to go through with it after she witnesses what Henry witnessed: Glenn molesting Christina through her bedroom window (thankfully, the movie doesn’t show us the abuse; just Henry and Susan’s shocked reactions).
Of course, when the movie has your characters witnessing the horrible act, it immediately begs the question: “Why don’t they just tape the abuse and turn it into the authorities?” The movie wants us to believe that Glenn is so powerful that no one can stop him, but I’m pretty sure videotaped evidence of the abuse would be compelling enough to shut him down. But because The Book of Henry isn’t comfortable with human emotions and feels the need to create an elaborate hook, it leads back to the goofy murder plot where an 11-year-old boy has left instructions for his mom on how to buy a high-powered sniper rifle.
What’s so frustrating is that the murder plot is absolutely superfluous to the emotional core of the movie. It doesn’t illustrate anything we didn’t already know (Susan relies so much on Henry that she’ll do anything he says), and it takes us away from the real connection—Susan and Peter. If this had been a story about a mother and son trying to cope with a loss, it would be a smaller story, but at least it would be an honest one. Lieberhen, Watts, and Tremblay are all fantastic, and the scenes with Lieberhen and Tremblay are particularly excellent, but the script doesn’t trust these relationships to be enough. It’s not enough that a mother has to learn to be a parent and a son has to learn to be an only child in the shadow of a genius sibling. The mom has to kill their rapist neighbor.
Even if you remove the “Kill Thy Neighbor” plot, the sexual abuse is never approached in a realistic way. Christina isn’t a person; she’s an object of abuse. She’s quiet and withdrawn, and while her behavior may be accurate, we don’t get to know her as anything beyond “Abused neighbor,” thus turning her into a damsel in distress that Henry would have saved if not for his terminal brain tumor. The fact that Susan is trying to save Christina doesn’t make her any more of a character, nor does the murder plot illustrate anything about Susan beyond her learning that she shouldn’t let her dead genius son control her life.
The Book of Henry wants to be a movie about grief and healing, but it’s stuck in denial. It presents unbelievable characters making bad decisions at every turn. Henry believes you shouldn’t leave things undone, but rather than setting up an elaborate project to help his mom deal with the grief of losing him, he wants her to kill their neighbor. That’s his dying wish and fond farewell to his mom, which makes Henry out to be someone with a twisted moral compass and a savior complex. For all of Henry’s brilliance, there doesn’t seem to be much love in his heart, just a desire for control.
I’ve seen stranger movies than The Book of Henry, but those strange movies know they’re strange. They know the rules and how to break them. I doubt John Waters looks at Pink Flamingos or David Lynch looks at Eraserhead and thinks, “I made a completely normal movie.” The twisted thing about The Book of Henry is that it carries itself like a normal movie. It thinks that it’s a little quirky, but emotionally honest movie about trying to murder your neighbor because your genius dead son left you instructions on how to do so.