There are a few different kinds of bad movies. Some are just bad (The Snowman, interminable), some are offensive (Bright, insulting), and some are so bad that they push the needle all the way back around to greatness (The Room, insane). The Book of Henry falls into its own category.
The Book of Henry came out in June of this year, but it already feels so far removed from the collective consciousness that it might as well be celebrating its fifth or 10th anniversary. This is less because it’s forgettable—it isn’t—and more because it’s so bonkers that it almost feels like a movie that you made up (that is, assuming that you’ve seen it). If you haven’t, you probably will assume that I’m making up what I’m about to describe.
For a little context, this is the movie that some say cost director Colin Trevorrow Star Wars: Episode IX. Made from a 1998 script by novelist Gregg Hurwitz, The Book of Henry was drawn and quartered by critics upon release; despite the fact that this year has seen a glut of weird and/or bad movies, it easily outstrips any competition to be the most insane movie of 2017.
Where to begin? Maybe with the fact that Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) dies halfway through the movie, or that what he leaves to his mother Susan (Naomi Watts) is a detailed manual of instructions on how to commit the perfect murder? (Yes, the “book of Henry” is a murder manual.) Or maybe with the cassette tape he’s recorded to walk her through the murder just in case the book isn’t enough, which he seems to have made with some sort of predictive sixth sense, as there are full scenes where Susan carries on a dialogue with a tape recording. In fairness, there is a line that addresses this, as Susan briefly breaks out of her reverie and throws off the “rhythm” of the tape, so to speak, but that doesn’t account for endless other instances of tape-coaching, including a bit where Henry tells her to, “go right; no, your other right.”
While there’s no real beef to be had against Susan, it’s not entirely clear that she has what it takes to care for two children on her own, with being unable to distinguish directions serving as something of a leading indicator. A few of the other adult characters realize she might be a few books short of a library when her response to any question about money or other such adult responsibilities is, “I have to ask Henry,” but there’s never any real intervention. She lives in a nice house and she’s got loads of money! What’s there to worry about?
The money, of course, comes from Henry, who played the stock market to amass almost $700,000, took care of all the family’s finances, and was even responsible for limiting the amount of time his mother spends playing video games. If this sounds weirdly Oedipal, it’s even more so onscreen, especially when Susan’s response to being told she should try to date around is that there’s nobody who’ll ever measure up to Henry.
Just in case this doesn’t feel weird to you, the script also pushes the inability to distinguish between what’s appropriate for adults and what’s appropriate for children (even if they are prodigies) by shoehorning in a weird semi-romance. Henry and Sheila (Sarah Silverman, done up like Amy Winehouse), Susan’s best friend, have the kind of relationship that you’d expect in a will-they, won’t-they romcom with no concept of what anyone actually likes to hear when flirting with someone they like. Sheila calls Henry “Hank,” and Henry calls Sheila variations on stupid, or drunk, or any number of other things, which are definitely on an equal level in terms of teasing and not at all completely disproportionate reactions. When Henry winds up in the hospital, they share a moment of confession. Henry tells her that he’s always been mean to her because he likes her, and finds her pretty. And Sheila leans in for a kiss. Yes, on the mouth. Yes, Jaeden Lieberher is 12, and Sarah Silverman is 45. No, I don’t know.
Anyway, let’s not forget that this boy’s last act was to ask his little brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) to give his mother his instructions on how to commit murder. The murder in question is that of their next-door neighbor and local police commissioner, Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris). Henry, upon discovering that Glenn has been abusing his stepdaughter Christina (Maddie Ziegler, from the Sia videos), tries to report him, but Glenn’s position in the community has rendered him relatively immune. So, obviously, the only remaining solution is to kill him. Susan doesn’t feel enough internal conflict to keep her from buying a sniper rifle and following Henry’s instructions all the way up to luring Glenn out into the woods and training her rifle on him. But, naturally, at the last possible moment, she sets off a Rube Goldberg contraption that reminds her that Henry was just a child. The revelation is somewhat undercut by the fact that the entire rest of the movie posits the opposite, but that’s the least of this movie’s problems.
Given how insane the rest of The Book of Henry is, the ending feels like a cop-out. At the school talent show, Christina does an interpretive dance that’s so stirring (I’m guessing, here, as the sequence is so heavily edited that it’s difficult to see anything) that the school principal is finally moved to ask for an investigation into her home life, and upon realizing that the jig is up, Glenn shoots himself. Christina comes to live with Susan and Peter, and that’s that.
Despite everything that I’ve written here, this is a movie that largely defies description. Each scene feels like it’s picked out from a different movie to the point that their compilation is interminable. A movie this crazy should be spellbinding, but as it is, The Book of Henry is just baffling. It’s fun, but not fun; it’s forgettable, but unforgettable. The best thing that can be said about it is that there’s nothing else quite like it.