"The Book of Henry" has the potential to become a cult classic. There's a subset of people for whom the shambolic plot of this film will scratch their itch. Underneath all the autumn leaf clutter and heartwarming kitchen scenes, there's an unfortunate message about girls and about sexual assault victims.
Warning: this review will reveal the ending of "The Book of Henry."
TBOH starts out in one of those idyllic towns you only see in middlebrow American films. No one has a regional accent. There are wooded hillsides all around, and scenic waterfalls, and quilts on couches. You can tell that characters are meant to be coded "poor" or "working class" because they are wearing Goodwill clothing, but they manage to live in big Victorians on lots of wooded property. If this were a real town in contemporary America, I'm afraid it would be one of those places with a high opiate abuse rate.
Susan (Naomi Watts) is a single mom of two adorable boys, Henry and Peter. Susan is a waitress, she drinks too much, and she is addicted to video games. Susan's best friend Sheila (Sarah Silverman) is a sharp-tongued lush with a heart of gold and cleavage so low we can see her heart beating.
Henry is a genius and has the personality, not just of a mature man, but actually of a saint or a Bodhisattva or Cary Grant, the angel character in "The Bishop's Wife." Henry spends his time hanging out in a treehouse designed by Norman Rockwell on acid, creating Rube Goldberg machines, and amassing hundreds of thousands of dollars – and he talks to his broker on a pay phone. Where are there still pay phones? Wouldn't a boy genius have a cell phone?
At first you think, okay, this is going to be like a Steven Spielberg boy's true adventure film. An "ET" crossed with a tad of homebound Thelma and Louise. But no.
Henry looks out his window and concludes, from what he sees, that the next-door neighbor, Glenn, is sexually molesting his step-daughter, Christina. Uh, oh. This has just turned into an educational film about the horrors of child abuse and incest. Or maybe a Eugene O'Neill style family horror story. Well, there's a fleeting few seconds of that, but then Henry is hiding in a gun store, learning how to buy illegal weapons. Okay, this is quite the roller coaster ride. You don't even have time to make sure you have fastened the safety latch when Henry suddenly develops a bad headache and worse vision.
Henry goes into seizures. It's a disease of the week movie! No, wait! A handsome surgeon steps in to operate, and to make eyes at Naomi Watts who, yes, is still in the movie. Is this going to be a romance film? Where does this train stop?
Henry dies. Just like that. The titular character is dead, halfway into this PG family story / unsuitable for children incest story / true crime story. His death is so quick and so subtle I didn't realize he was dead until Susan is shown mourning by obsessively baking brownies while wearing a chocolate-stained apron.
This is where the "Book of Henry" of the title comes in. Note that "Book of Henry" sounds like a Biblical book. That's because Henry is now dead and doing good deeds from the afterlife. Susan discovers that Henry left a notebook with a detailed plan for her to murder her next-door neighbor, Glenn. So now we are back to this being a Hitchcockian story. But it never goes there. It never does what suspense or true crime or horror films do. It continues to play as if it were a wholesome, small town Americana comedy. The sight of Naomi Watts going from chocolate-stained apron to staring down the sights of an illegal automatic weapon with a silencer in a PG movie chilled my blood.
Susan comes within seconds of following her dead son's macabre / wholesome plan to its final, murderous / humanitarian end, but then she can't bring herself to pull – or as Henry would have it – squeeze the trigger. She merely informs Glenn that she is on his tail, and Glenn kills himself.
Susan then adopts Christina and puts Christina in the same bedroom that Henry had previously occupied – with her other son, Peter. No doubt there will be a sequel on how one of these two needs to be killed for a subsequent incest flare-up.
And the whole thing is meant to be heartwarming and kind of funny.
It's hard to talk about this train wreck of a film in any serious way, but. Christina, the incest victim, says almost nothing in the movie. She is silent. The obvious thing for Susan to do, even before buying a high-powered rifle, would be to get Christina alone, away from her stepfather, with an authority figure and encourage her to tell her own story. In this Hollywood movie, a dead boy is the master puppeteer for his adult mother, who is merely a marionette, and that dead boy is more verbal than a live girl. And that's a disgusting and dangerous message.