For all my years of watching movies, both professionally and as a fan, I’ve rarely been as baffled by as a film as I am by The Book of Henry. This is a movie that eschews all concepts of internal logic or coherence, opting instead to barrel full-throttle into bipolar, batshit indifference. It’s a perplexing endeavor—not in the sense that the film challenges its audience towards any particular goal, but in that it was even made in the first place.
There’s little I, or anyone, can do to fully prepare you for the absolute insanity of The Book of Henry’s bewildering structure, plot, or purpose. If I told you everything, you’d call me a liar. And yet there’s a part of me that wants to. A part of me wants to tell you everything, in the way that you might wearily and desperately recall the beat by beat minutiae of any witnessed disaster. Maybe it would be cathartic, in its own way. Maybe it would help to share.
But no. This is something best experienced first-hand, not that I have any particular wish for you to have this experience. It may be worth it for some viewers, however. The level of sheer improbability of The Book of Henry might be a selling point for fans of the inane. For some, the baffling incongruity is the stuff of midnight movie legend, or the sort of film you watch on repeat because it makes so little sense.
The film follows Susan (Naomi Watts), a single mother who works at a diner to support her two boys, Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) and Peter (Jacob Tremblay). Henry—an 11-year-old—runs the household because of his apparent genius, which mostly manifests in the form of building Rube-Goldberg machines and playing the stock market, while Susan plays videogames and drinks with her friend Sheila (Sarah Silverman).
At this point, it’s the kind of saccharine film most reminiscent of a mid-90’s Sandra Bullock drama, oozing with faux sweetness and sappy sentimentality. Tear bait for the middle-aged crowd. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, though the format itself is dated and doesn’t necessarily work in today’s cinematic landscape.
In a twist, however, things soon get dark. Real dark. Sexual abuse of a child dark. Henry suspects that his neighbor Christina (Maddie Ziegler) is being abused by her stepfather Glenn (Dean Norris) though no one will listen to him since Glenn is also the commissioner of the local police department (and also his brother runs the local CPS). He then forms a plan to murder his neighbor and forge the documents necessary for his family to adopt Christina. His meticulous planning is thwarted, however, when Henry, well, dies. Not before laying his entire plan out in a notebook for his mother, which is supplemented by a series of pre-recorded tapes her made to walk her through the process.
Even while going through its dark twists—which are less twists than odd tonal shifts—The Book of Henry tries to keep its sappy, family ready façade. So what we essentially have is a family movie about child sexual abuse, murder, and grief. None of which are handled well by the script.
Written by novelist Gregg Hurwitz, The Book of Henry features some of the worst writing in a major film that’s come along in quite some time. The script it riddled with clichés and sap, and features lines such as “I don’t think it’s your head that hurts, I think it’s your heart” (said by a doctor to a grieving boy). Director Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World) has apparently been enamored by this script for years, which unfortunately brings up a lot of questions about his judgment as a filmmaker.
That’s potentially an unfair assessment, but it’s now the elephant in the room. Trevorrow was handpicked by Steven Spielberg to helm the soft reboot/sequel to the Jurassic Park series, lifting him from relative obscurity to heights where he’s now the man in charge of finishing out the Star Wars sequel trilogy. What is it, exactly, that Trevorrow saw in this script that demanded it be made? That’s an impossible question to answer, as there’s nothing here worth the paper it was printed on.
If this is the kind of script that speaks to him as a filmmaker—or, indeed, that sticks with him for years— what does it say about him? We don’t have much to judge Trevorrow on, but his career trajectory has been wild. His debut film, Safety Not Guaranteed, was a solid indie sci-fi, and Jurassic World was serviceable. Hopefully, The Book of Henry is just a misstep and not an indicator. Plenty of directors have made a bad movie and moved on to great careers.
But you’re not wrong to question things, at this point. For many, hiring Trevorrow to bring Star Wars home was an eyebrow raising decision. He simply doesn’t have the clout to inspire confidence, and what clout he had is considerably lessened now. The Book of Henry is that bad.
With any luck, this won’t derail the careers of its young stars, all of whom are surprisingly good in their respective roles. As good as can be expected, at any rate. If the script had bothered with any sort of characterization or meaningful dialogue, I’m certain they would have been outstanding. And even Watts and Silverman give it their all, and very nearly rise above the schlock and sap of the script.
At best, The Book of Henry can be called Rear Window: A Lifetime Original Movie. Not even, because with Lifetime movies there’s often a self-awareness that makes them endearing in their own way. The Book of Henry isn’t smart enough to be self-aware, and instead resorts to manipulation in an effort to trick you into thinking it’s a good movie. Even in those efforts, it fails. There’s no other way to label it except bad. Possibly the worst of the year.
The Book of Henry is now playing in theaters everywhere.