I defended Colin Trevorrow and Gregg Hurwitz, man. When the trailer for The Book of Henry first dropped and the rest of my friends were sniggering at its straight-faced absurdity, I was here for it. Mixing genres in weird ways is my shit; as counterproductive as it is to my line of work, I can forgive so much when a script tries a little metallurgical engineering. When everyone else was shit-talking Aloha, I was all about the fact that Cameron Crowe fused one of his adorable romantic comedies with a conspiracy thriller; never mind that I could only laugh nervously whenever somebody mentioned that Emma Stone was playing a character named Allison Ng.
So yeah, give me a family dramedy that’s also a thriller about young genius Henry (Jaden Liberher) and his loving mother Susan (Naomi Watts) plotting to Rube Goldberg the powerful and predatory stepfather (Dean Norris) of Henry’s best friend and possible love interest Christina (Maddie Ziegler) out of the equation. You think that’s too weird? Well, you’re weird, shut up.
Thing is, the movie that was sold isn’t the movie I saw. The movie I saw was a charming family melodrama that completely loses itself in a weird and dark plot thread that feels way more unnecessary than “we live next door to a kiddie toucher who happens to be the police commissioner and he needs to be stopped” should.
[Strap the FUCK in for some spoilers]
First of all, Henry doesn’t make it to the credits; in fact, he dies of a brain tumor midway through the movie. The trailer does a good job of hiding this, but it’s not that big of a shock; Henry’s first scene has him speaking to his class about the idea of a legacy, and then a few scenes of Henry hagiography later, he wakes up with a splitting headache that he ignores. His death couldn’t be foreshadowed more if it took place in Vietnam during the war and there was a girl back home he was going to marry. It’s unfortunate, since Liberher does a great job with the “little kid who acts like an adult” schtick and, in turn, convincingly drives the plot forward over the first half.
Still, you can do worse than placing your movie in the capable hands of Naomi Watts; she’s her usual fantastic self, even if she’s playing to the rafters a little. Susan gets a fascinating arc in this movie, starting off as a bit of a womanchild who relies too much on her genius son to keep the household going. It could come off as pathetic—maybe it will to some—but I found Watts charming as hell. There’s something particularly endearing about her playing Gears of War on the couch while Henry rolls his eyes and pays the bills. If losing Henry makes the movie about Susan coming into her own as a person, well, again, there are worse ways to use an actress of Watts’ caliber.
However, it’s the film’s focus on Susan’s journey, and the relationships between her, Henry, and youngest son Peter (Jacob Tremblay) that ends up sowing the seeds of its downfall. Once you introduce a pederast neighbor who can’t be taken down by conventional means, everything else—including brain cancer and coping with the loss of a beloved son/older brother—starts to feel a little less important. In the hospital, Henry tells Peter to give their mother the book after he dies. It’s important, he says. He’s counting on Peter because he’s the only one he’s ever trusted, he says. After Henry’s death, we get some amazing scenes that illustrate Susan’s spiral into depression, including a manic episode where she tells Peter about her plan for them to eat dessert for every meal for a week; they’re hilarious, they’re heartbreaking, they’re honest, and all I could think was “Peter, you dick, give her the damn book so she can find out what’s been going on and shit can pop off!”
He eventually does, of course, and it’s exciting. Henry was passionate; we saw him try every legal avenue to get The Guy Nobody Should Ever Call Daddy away from Christina. His principal won’t do shit because she doesn’t have the guts to take on a respected member of the community. Anonymous calls to CPS don’t work because the stepfather’s brother works for CPS. Of course, since he’s the police commissioner, Henry can’t go to the cops. He feels like he can’t even rely on Susan; when they see a girl getting roughed up by her boyfriend at a convenience store, Susan declines to step in out of fear of making things worse. So having nobody to trust except his genius-level intellect, surely he came up with a brilliant, intricate plan to save Christina for Susan to execute in his place, right?
Here’s his plan, outlined step by step:
- Buy a high powered sniper rifle from someone who deals under the table.
- Lure Father of the Year out into the woods.
- Shoot him in the head with a bullet that will fragment on impact, making it impossible to trace.
- Dispose of the rifle.
- Adopt Christina and continue living life.
After Susan witnesses the abuse for herself, she decides to go through with Henry’s incredibly dark plan, outlined in his journal, because how could you not want to off an absolute fucker like Christina’s stepdad after witnessing him do his thing, knowing that there was somehow nothing else you could do to stop it? Susan is guided through the intricacies of the set-up and execution through a tape recording Henry made that hilariously anticipates (most of) her reactions to whatever she’s asked to do. To their credit, even as Trevorrow and Hurwitz guide the film from gentle family tragicomedy to gritty crime thriller, they find room for some solid gags that let a little light in. It buys the film room to breathe; even though I was really looking forward to a Sting-esque fuckbarrelling of a complete monster, I was enjoying the family dynamic. I loved Naomi Watts. I loved Jacob Tremblay, even if his character deserved to be tied closer to the main plot somehow and not off in his own little after-school special. I loved Lee Pace’s turn as the neurosurgeon who treated Henry and then befriended Peter, even though it wasn’t going anywhere. By the time Watts set everything in motion, kicking off what I thought was the end of the second act, I was thinking “You know what? It’s a little wacky and rude, but at its worst, it’s still an interesting genre exercise. We need more low/mid-budget movies like this that’ll take chances and mess with expectations, even if they don’t work out in execution.”
I guess that last part is still true; The Book of Henry certainly takes chances, after all. “Execution,” however, turned out to be a poor word to use; with the bad guy dead to rights in her sniper scope, Susan—perched in Henry’s clubhouse—decides not to take the shot after she accidentally triggers one of Henry’s Rube Goldberg machines, which reveals cute, innocent pictures of the family.
So here’s an approximation of what was going through my head over the next few minutes of this movie:
“Okay. Okay. Actually this is good, because it brings Susan to the end of her arc. She learns to stop relying on her son and trust her own instincts, which are telling her that there might be some real psychic consequences for putting a bullet in someone, even if he has it coming. Granted, there has to be something a little more emotionally satisfying than Susan, upon being discovered, yelling ‘I KNOW EVERYTHING AND I’M GONNA TELL’ at him in the woods. At night. When he has a gun. I mean, does she not know who Ned Stark was? But…
“Okay, I guess Rapey Stepdad is just gonna let Susan leave, that’s nice I guess. Then again, killing her on the spot might have made a bigger mess at this point. I can kinda see that. I guess in Act 3, Susan has to outwit Rapey Stepdad with the help of a backup recording Henry made, detailing a less reliable Plan B in the completely foreseeable event that his mother couldn’t go through with, uh, premeditated murder. I mean, it sure would suck if the last we hear from Henry confirmed he was a bitter quasi-sociopath, urging his loving mother to kill a guy in such a cold-blooded fashion.
“Hmm, the principal that refused to call CPS sure is getting emotional, watching Christina cry through her dance recital…I guess if she calls now, it’ll help Susan out somehow, but that’s not going to—oh.
“So that was Act 3, huh?”
So yeah, we see Rapey Stepdad call one of his connections to get in front of any story Susan might be prepared to tell, only to find that the Principal called first and the story was “too big” to contain, so they have to open a case. Faced with this, Rapey Stepdad kills himself.
I mean on one hand, the anti-climax reinforces the notion that Henry, brilliant as he was, was also just a kid who didn’t fully understand how complicated people could be. He thought his principal would always be a coward, just like he thought his mother would pull the trigger on Rapey Stepdad just because he told her to do it. On the other hand, a good genre hybrid serves both its masters. This is a satisfying ending for the melodrama, but as a crime thriller it doesn’t work because the protagonist has no involvement in the antagonist’s fall; theoretically, such a story could work if the protagonist was merely concerned with escaping the grasp of the antagonist, but said antagonist isn’t even aware the protagonist is a problem until the last possible minute, so ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING? YOU RESOLVE THE KEY EXTERNAL CONFLICT WITH THE PRINCIPAL’S FUCKING CHANGE OF HEART? THE SAME PRINCIPAL WHO HAD LIKE TWO SCENES IN THE WHOLE FILM? Never mind robbing Susan of the control that this story was supposed to be about her taking; this dude’s been sitting on the Throne of God all movie, and you’re telling me all it took to bring him down was THE SCHOOL GODDAMN PRINCIPAL REPORTING SOME GODAMNNED SUSPICIONS? WERE YOU HIGH? WERE YOU JUST NOT ALLOWED TO TAKE A SHIT UNTIL YOU WROTE AN ENDING?
I mean, if the morals of your story are “Learn to trust yourself” and “Kids, no matter how smart, are still kids,” surely there’s a better way to express them than “The guy next door is raping his stepdaughter but I guess I shouldn’t kill the dude in cold blood, no matter how much my dead son is begging me to do it.”
You know what I found funny? The proper end of the movie shows that Christina’s been adopted by Susan and she’s being tucked into Henry’s old bed; he and Peter share(d) a room. It’s a temporary arrangement, Susan points out, until she finishes painting the spare room in the house, but it gives the story a sweet, poetic wrap-up that it wishes it earned. At my showing I was sitting ahead of this elderly couple, and when the lights come up, the woman—who’s been silent the whole time, save for an occasional appropriate reaction—leans over to her husband. She’s mostly amused but also a little indignant, and she says, “You know, the courts would never let those two sleep in the same room.”
I guess everybody’s got a breaking point. The Book of Henry is built on one breaking point after another; a cascading failure of a movie.