‘The Book of Henry’: More than a film review–but an articulation of the very nature of evil

I was stunned by the movie reviews for The Book of Henry—they were illustriously bad.  In fact, they were so bad that there was often hatred in the utterances of the reviews.  Some people just hated this movie.  Yet, I have been very excited about it and did go and see it on the opening weekend—and I thought it was an absolutely brilliant film.  It wasn’t just a little good—it was great and in any other time, it would win many awards.  So how could all the critics be so wrong—well, to get to that let’s study the reaction to just the trailer that Grace Randolph from Beyond the Trailer provided when she reviewed the preview back in March.  I’m not picking on Grace, I usually lover her opinions even when I don’t agree—but this reaction is one of those raw–primal hatreds that certainly influenced all the negative reviews and that is why this is such a brilliant film.  Watch closely.

I think it said a lot about Colin Trevorrow that he wanted to even make this movie between the blockbusters of Jurassic World and the ninth Star Wars film upcoming.  He could have made any movie he wanted yet he picked The Book of Henry, which features a boy genius, 11 years of age who knows that there is great evil in the world and he spends much of his time contemplating how to stop it.  Trevorrow brought in some great talent, wonderful editing, great composer, great actors, great cinematography—great film business people from top to bottom and gave a project like The Book of Henry a top notch indie film treatment.  It’s a movie with a lot of heart but it has a judgment and that is what has people so outrageously upset with the movie and seek to punish it with their own needs to deflect their own guilt for the theme for which the movie is about.

The little girl next door to where Henry lives with his single mom and his little brother is being sexually abused by her step father who happens to be the police commissioner. So let’s answer Grace’s question from above, because her reaction was pretty innocent but some of the people in the film review business, from Variety to Rolling Stone are no doubt like the Sarah Silverman character—whom I don’t like as a political activist.  But she played a wonderful normal person in this movie—a person that likely 90 percent of our population could identify with.  She’s a loser, a hard-core drinker who misses work too much and has an ugly tattoo on her breast which she shows off most of the movie—she is the best friend of Naomi Watts who plays Henry’s mom.  And what a poor creature she is—she represents another large segment of the population who have lost her way in life.  She’s not a bad person, but she’s afraid to make her mark on the world and she drinks and plays too many video games to hide from that inclination—and she is totally dependent on her oldest son Henry who is an impeccable genius.

Most of the reviewers have commented that Henry seems otherworldly and un-relatable. After all, there just aren’t 11-year-olds out there who are as mature and wise as Henry.  But movies are supposed to take us to places we can’t go in normal life and meet people worth the hard work that usually goes into making movies.  And lucky for me, I completely understand Henry.  I knew people like him and there are parts of him that I can directly understand.  There is a scene in the movie that I thought was particularly powerful, it’s where Henry, his brother and his mom are at the grocery and they see a guy beating his girlfriend as they are having an argument. Nobody does anything to help the woman, but Henry is inclined to get involved and his mom stops him telling him its none of their business.  “Don’t get involved.”   Later that night Henry and his mom are in bed talking (innocently because the mother still reads books to her boys even though they are probably too old) and Henry tries to explain how disappointed he was in his mother for not wanting to get involved in the argument between the couple at the grocery store.  Of course his mother uses the excuse that she didn’t want to become embroiled in a violent episode.  Then Henry explains to her that violence isn’t always the worst thing.  Curious, his mother asked the young man what is the worst thing in the world.  Henry pauses for a second and answers, “apathy.”

When Grace Randolph was so outraged that The Book of Henry relied so heavily on a child genius to tell a rather ordinary story about revenge, redemption and family assimilation she made the mistake to assume that these things are normally very obvious to people—and they are in the third person.  After all, we are used to watching other people in the god-like position of viewer, with television and movies where we often have more information about what’s going on than the characters on the screen do and the drama we experience is in hoping that people we care about learn what we do in time to save themselves.  But in real life where stories are not broken down into typical three act plays, introduction, articulation of the conflict, then wrapped up nicely and on que to climax—events do not hold to that structure and because we have trained our minds in such a fashion—we often do not see evil sitting right in front of us.  Evil comes at us in subtle ways through loved ones, our jobs, our politics—even the kid who wants to mow our grass, install our cable, or check out our food at Wal-Mart.  We as human beings trust our structures and our institutions.  But most of the things that happen in the world happens outside of those organized elements and in the case of The Book of Henry, we see a society stuck in its structures and trust in institutional figures—such as the police chief next door who complains that the leaves of his single parent mother neighbor keep blowing into his yard giving him psychological leverage over her to hide his real crime—that he is sexually molesting his step daughter and using the institutions of government to keep inquiries away from him.  It takes someone free of those institutions—someone bigger than what human kind has to offer at that moment to see the evil—and that is why it was necessary to have Henry in this film be a brilliant kid.  Without that genius, nobody would have the courage to step beyond the veil of adulthood with all its trickery and diversion tactics meant to deceive themselves into believing they were living good lives—to see the truth.  That the police commissioner was destroying this poor little girl for extremely selfish reasons he deserved a style of justice that has nearly been outlawed in America. The Book of Henry nails all this and more making it a remarkable work of art.  That it has pissed off so many reviewers say more about them than the movie—for they are like the institutionalists in the film who failed the little girl while only Henry thought to act and took action to start the process. There are a lot of little girls—and little boys in the world who need someone to see how much trouble they are in but unfortunately their plight is invisible to most of our adult population.

The Book of Henry is a rare film that like all great art shows us what is difficult to see and in this case the plot device is genius to show it to an audience stuck in life much like the Naomi Watts character—not a bad person, but a person stuck in hundreds of bad decisions holding her down in life.  Her son Henry is pure and free of such things and it is through him that she comes to see the world for what it really is—and is compelled to act accordingly.  Even with some of the truly tragic story lines in this film it is an uplifting tale of optimism and genuine love of life. It is a truly remarkable work and something everyone should see at least once.  The reviews don’t like the film because it’s a bad movie—but because it makes them look at things they are partially guilty of creating—so that should not be a reason to avoid the picture.  Rather, The Book of Henry should be watched with open hearts and open minds and an honest assessment to what role the viewer might play on the side of villainy so that they can correct the situation for the good of everyone. The Book of Henry nails it and is certainly one of the great films of history and should still be remembered many years from now.

Rich Hoffman

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