THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
****SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
Odds are that you have never seen THE BOOK OF HENRY. Those same odds mean that you likely have heard of it as one of the worst films of 2017 and the movie that lost director Colin Trevorrow the gig helming STAR WARS: RISE OF THE SKYWALKER. For the sake of transparency, yes, THE BOOK OF HENRY was regarded as a colossal failure both critically and at the box office. It also is eerily coincidental that after this movie flopped it was quickly followed by Trevorrow departing from Lucasfilm under the generic explanation of creative differences. If that was not enough to pique your interest in this movie, how could anyone pass up watching such an abyssmal failure of filmmaking? Well, if you actually sat down and viewed THE BOOK OF HENRY, you would find that it is nowhere remotely as bad as you have been led to believe.
THE BOOK OF HENRY is a lot of things, but worst film of 2017 should not be counted among them. The story of a dead boy who instructs his mother to murder a child abuser by providing her with intricately plotted instructions to get away with the crime sound like an incredibly bizarre concept for a heart-tugging film about the power of family and love. But that is exactly what THE BOOK OF HENRY is. Written by Greg Hurwitz, a crime novelist and comic book writer, the screenplay for THE BOOK OF HENRY floated around Hollywood for almost twenty years before Colin Trevorrow got involved. After his massive success with JURASSIC WORLD, Trevorrow had a blank check to make any film he wanted and he chose THE BOOK OF HENRY. Harkening back to some of the same quirky themes of his first film, SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED, Colin Trevorrow was looked at as a one-hit wonder when critics tore into this movie. But, why?
Well, THE BOOK OF HENRY deals with some heavy material including child abuse and terminal illness. It also portrays them through the lens of a 1980s Amblin film the likes of which Ron Howard and Steven Spielberg became synonymous with. Trevorrow clearly has an affinity for Spielberg, Howard, and their peers and it is evident in this movie from the opening scene. With the talented Jaeden Lieberher in the title role along with the equally adept Jacob Tremblay, the child cast of this movie deliver solid performances. In fact, the acting is never an issue with this movie with Naomi Watts turning in one of her best films in decades and the always great Dean Norris chewing the scenery as the bad guy. Supporting roles from Sarah Silverman, Lee Pace, and Bobby Moynihan round out a cast that should have been a major selling point for anyone interested in this flm.
So why is this film so maligned? Well, it is incredibly melodramatic and does not shy away from blatantly playing for emotional responses from the audience. Despite the vastly over the top plot which sees Naomi Watts wielding a sniper rifle at the urging of her dead son’s diary and prepared to murder their next door neighbor, the film has nothing but decency at it’s core. Like similar films in recent years including WONDER, Disney’s own THE ODD LIFE OF TIMOTHY GREEN and even PETE’S DRAGON, THE BOOK OF HENRY takes serious family and societal issues and shows them through a lens of fantasy. Clearly, the complex Rube Goldberg devices that Henry builds in the movie helped him come up with his plan to murder his neighbor, but there is a message underlying this tale that many critics missed when judging the execution of the film.
Tackling dark subject matter like abuse or death is tricky, especially when your film is family-centric. The bulk of critics said that the tone of THE BOOK OF HENRY did not fit the material, but I disagree. Colin Trevorrow did an admirable job of telling this story in a way that, despite the insane actions taken by Naomi Watts‘ character, represents her coping with the loss of her son. A major suspension of disbelief is needed to take any of this plot seriously, but you cannot always take a film at face value. There are individual moments and scenes in THE BOOK OF HENRY that are greater than the sum of it’s parts. That along makes this at least worth a watch if not disqualifying it from being called one of the worst films of 2017.
So much in THE BOOK OF HENRY does work including the score by the always reliable Michael Giacchino which echoes scores from the heydey of Spielberg and Howard, giving the film a reliably Amblin vibe. Cinematographer John Schwartzman, who previously teamed with Colin Trevorrow on JURASSIC WORLD, gives THE BOOK OF HENRY a nostalgiac feel that elevates the material and makes it more cinematic than the screenplay deserves. The material of this story is mined regularly in Hallmark and Lifetime films, but between the visual prowess and musical score, THE BOOK OF HENRY comes off as cinema-worthy.
So many movies try to be one thing and succeed where THE BOOK OF HENRY juggles multiple tones, styles, and themes. Ultimately, it could have been streamlined and turned into something that aligns more with what critics and audiences may have expected the film to be. But, I would rather watch an interesting failure than a safe and predictable movie any day. Colin Trevorrow tried something and it did not resonate with anyone, but that does not make this a terrible film. THE BOOK OF HENRY has it’s heart in the right place and challenges audiences with ideas that may be uncomfortable to talk about, but that is exactly what makes this movie worth seeing. This film is one that should be watched at least once and if it merits discussion as the credits roll, good or bad, then it is a success.
Oh, and if you have any suggestions for The UnPopular Opinion I’m always happy to hear them. You can send along an email to [email protected] or spell it out in the comments below. Provide me with as many movie suggestions as you like, with any reasoning you’d care to share, and if I agree then you may one day see it featured in this very column!