The Book of Henry

I’d like to invite you to see one of the most thought-provoking movies I have seen in a long time. It is The Book of Henry, directed by Colin Trevarrow. If you are going to see it, you might want to do it before you read any of the reviews. But since you won’t do that, allow me to present some of the more poignant passages from the first four reviews listed in [1]

Manohia Dargis of the New York Times

A weepie, a thriller, a tragedy, a sub-Spielbergian pastiche, “The Book of Henry” is mostly a tedious mess.

John DeFore for The Hollywood Reporter

The preposterousness of Gregg Hurwitz’s screenplay isn’t enough to throw star Naomi Watts off her game, and the actor’s sincere performance may suffice to keep a segment of the family-film demographic on board, barely.

Susan Wloszczyna for the

For much of the film, I focused on the young actors (even Ziegler shows signs of having performing chops beyond her dance skills) and savored the few moments of dry humor—such as when Henry describes his own diagnosis in great detail and in complex medical terms to his shocked brain surgeon. But every book needs an editor, and there really is no upside in threatening to turn Watts into a mommy assassin. That doesn’t just make Henry look stupid, but his movie, too.

James Berardinelli for ReelViews

If you look hard enough, it’s possible to find worthwhile elements in The Book of Henry, an overwrought, tonally inconsistent drama about cancer, death, and child abuse.

OK, that’s what they say. Here’s what I say. I have never seen a movie with the guts to portray social action based on a child’s empathy in the way The Book of Henry does. And they give you no clue at all that they are going to have the chops to do that. At least, I didn’t pick up any clues. So when they drop the bomb—the stunning and satisfying reversal of everything we have come to expect–I ran into it like a glass door. [2]

So of all the themes I could choose from this movie—which I am sure is not going to be in the theaters very long because the critics were very nearly unanimous in their dismissal of it—I am going to choose the strengths and weaknesses of Henry and his mother. You don’t ever see these at the same time, by the way. When Henry is being strong, his mother is being weak.


I’m going to tell you everything that mattered to me about this movie, so some of you are going to check out now. Tell you what. Go see the movie and come back and read this.

Henry 4Susan Carpenter (Naomi Watts) is trying to raise two small boys: Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) and Peter (Jacob Tremblay). Peter is a perfectly normal little kid, which means he has to come somehow with the fact that Henry is a genius and a competent manager of events and a superb caregiver and an action-oriented empath. Something is fundamentally wrong with Susan. We never find out what it is, but it keeps her in the dead end job she has as a waitress, it keeps her from writing and illustrating the children’s books, for which she has a real gift. It does not keep her from playing war-themed video games.

She puts her two boys to bed every night in a very loving way, but that’s about the limit of her parenting skills. In terms of managing an adult life, she has no skills at all.

Next door is a beautiful girl, who is in Henry’s class at school, and who lives with her stepfather, who is a beast. He has taken, now, to physical abuse. Maybe sexual abuse too. The bruises and the trips to the emergency room and the suddenly listless attendance at school that are all to familiar to social workers are all part of her life.

Henry has tried everything he can to get the authorities to intervene. Nothing haHenry 1s worked. So when he dies suddenly—sorry to just drop it in like that—he leaves behind the red notebook you see him with in the picture. This is the Book of Henry. In it, he argues very powerfully that his mother’s job now is to murder the stepfather, having already fraudulently produced a document that says in the event of his death, he would like Susan Carpenter to have custody of the stepdaughter.

Henry has left nothing to chance. He has figured out where his mother can buy the rifle with the scope and silencer, how she can get rid of the evidence, how she can establish a cast iron alibi. From a technical standpoint, Henry’s performance is even more impressive than anything he achieved during his life.

How to be the mother of a superhero

They don’t tell you that this is what the movie is about, but this is what is was about to me. Susan can’t support the family financially, but Henry can and does. He plays the stock market brilliantly. She can’t commit herself to her own artistic talent. She can’t use her time in any meaningful way. She can’t keep the insurance current or pay the bills. She defers to Henry about all those things and Henry comes up a winner in everything. Henry is, in fact, the adult in the family.

And then he dies. And in the Book, he leaves his mother a lot of really difficult things to do. She gets the evil stepfather to sign a document (any document) from which his signature can be forged. She faces down a corrupt arms salesman with a toughness we did not expect from her. Henry wrote all the lines for her, but she delivers them convincingly. She lays out the ambush and establishes the alibi and then, with the villain in her sights, she says No. In fact, she says in her internal dialogue with Henry, “No. You are just a child.” [3]

She’s right. From here on, I want to pursue three things. Two of them are about Susan Carpenter. The other is about the movie itself—which probably means it is about director, Colin Trevarrow.

Susan 1

It is by following Henry’s posthumous instructions that Susan becomes a fully functioning adult. I know that sounds odd. She lived by Henry’s gifts from the beginning of the film. What we see is Susan as a parasite on Henry’s competence. But in setting out to make his mother a murderer, Henry knows he first has to make her competent. It is by accepting his arguments and following his instructions that Susan acquires a sense of herself.  The picture below puts the point to Henry’s instructions: “Never leave things undone.”  It also shows (far left) the abused little girl next door.

Henry 2In fact, the best Susan Line is not “No, you are only a child.” Her best line is just afterward, when she leaves the shelter from which Henry’s ambush should have happened and tells the stepfather that she knows everything about what he has been doing and that she will see to it that he pays the price. The evil stepfather is also the local chief of police, so the likely consequences of saying this are ugly. He waves her off and starts to leave. She orders him to stop and turn around and face her and when he does she gives her best line—the best Susan Line: “I just wanted you to see who you’re up against.” Amazing!

Being up against the person she was before Henry’s death would have been a piece of cake for the Chief. But who is this, speaking his doom with power and certainty?

Susan 2

The movie leads us to believe that Susan is uncaring or weak-willed. We see Henry and Susan and Peter in a grocery store, watching an ill-mannered bully humiliate his wife in public. [4] Henry starts to go over to the couple to “do something.” Susan calls him back. Henry says that what they are seeing is wrong and that “something should be done.” Henry is good at “something.” Susan tells him “It is none of our business.” Which is probably true. It is not true about the abuses going on next door, but no one knows this couple and no overtly violent actions are taken. It could be just the way they fight as husband and wife; something Susan knows a good deal more about than Henry does.

Henry rebukes her, “What if everyone said that?” [5] She has no answer. There is no good answer. A good answer would require context. It would require a consideration of side-effects. It would consider what other tools were available. It would consider the systemic implications on a basis beyond that of individual actors. None of those are what this movie is about. This scene is here to show that Henry is a Moral Superhero as well as a genius and that his mother’s failure to intervene is only another aspect of the hapless life she lives.

Director Trevarrow

I am going to assume that this movie—the one I saw—is built around the point I am about to make. Here’s what it is. I don’t remember ever before seeing a character take Henry’s position, only to see it and him rejected. I have seen “failures to intervene” shown to be cowardly or, at the very least, as failures in empathy. I have seen good-hearted, but ill-considered actions, produce really awful consequences for which the agent can only say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know it would turn out like that.”  Those two lessons sum up my moviegoing experience on this point.

I have never seen an adult like Susan reject the actions urged upon her on the grounds that they are childish. “Extreme empathy,” like nearly everything else called “extreme,” is a good thing. How can it be wrong if it proceeds from the awareness you have of the suffering of another? That’s the film lesson. How can it be right to refuse to intervene when you see someone behaving badly in public? That’s the film lesson.

Until this film.

Susan follows Henry’s wisdom about the checking account and the insurance policies and Henry seems to have the upper hand on the social situations they confront—both the ongoing tragedy next door and the scuffle in the grocery. So we are completely unprepared—even Bette didn’t see it coming—for Susan’s rejection of murder as what she should do AND for her condemning the his urging as childish. “You see things as a child sees them,” she says to Henry in effect, “but I am an adult and I will follow my own wisdom.

Henry 3I think that to appreciate the power of Susan’s renunciation of Henry’s thinking—not just of the conclusion Henry reached but the simplicity of the route he took in getting to that conclusion—you have to appreciate how attractive intervention is made to seem. The stepfather next door is a brute and the girl who lives with him is completely helpless. The husband at the grocery is a jerk and “deserves what he gets.” That’s the way the narrative is set up. There is no anxious wrestling with the consequences of other possible choices.

None of that. Everything is set up to follow Henry’s plan until his mother says “No.” And grounds that “No” with, “You are just a child.” That’s where the power comes from. The moviegoer is urged to retrospectively reject Henry’s approach, which seemed so appealing at the time, and which we are now asked to see as “Childish.”

I hope that is what Colin Trevarrow had in mind. I really think that is the bone the reviewers are picking at, whatever the particulars are in their reviews. Trevarrow said No to the engaging empathy of an appealing child and he put that rejection in the mouth of a person whose record had not been that attractive up to that point.

[1] The Movie Review Query Engine, which I highly recommend as a source of movie reviews. There were 50+ reviews of this movie on the site.
[2] Pay It Forward, which was a much better movie in most ways, was not able to climb this particular hill. Trevor, the principal character, was deeply empathetic, like Henry, and also a tyrant, like Henry. But Pay It Forward doesn’t say that.
[3] That may seem an odd way to say it, but Henry’s instructions, now that we are down to the actually killing, are no longer represented as pages in a book, as the earlier ones were, but are delivered in Henry’s own voice.
[4] That’s how I read it. I might have gotten some of the details wrong, but I got the scene right.
[5] In Western philosophy, with which Henry might have been thoroughly familiar, we trace that test back to Kant: “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law,” or “act as if the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature.”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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