Schmaltzy, manipulative, and tonally schizophrenic, The Book of Henry is such a monumentally misguided venture that it ends up being oddly, if unintentionally, compelling. If not for Colin Trevorrow’s bland, listless direction, it would be tempting to read the film as a parody of slushy Hollywood tear-jerkers, a dark satire that uses the uncannily vacuum-sealed mawkishness of a Hallmark Channel movie as an ironic backdrop for a twisted Hitchcockian thriller. But Trevorrow is no Hitchcock, and his film is unfortunately far closer to Gifted than Shadow of a Doubt. That’s what makes it such a grimly fascinating disaster: It’s a cloying weepie that attempts to pull an inspirational moral out of a story about a mother attempting to murder her next-door neighbor because her dead son told her to.
Before it takes this jarring detour into suspense territory, The Book of Henry appears to be simply a run-of-the-mill family flick about a precocious 11-year-old, Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher), who runs his family’s household more than his mother, Susan (Naomi Watts), does. While clearly a loving parent, Susan prefers to play video games and get drunk with her friend, Sheila (Sarah Silverman), while Henry looks after his younger brother, Peter (Jacob Tremblay), and takes care of the family finances. Henry is the sort of adorable child genius who only exists in the minds of screenwriters, a mature, sensitive man trapped in the body of a boy whose mind is a bottomless fount of knowledge about everything from ballistics to neurology.
Midway through the film, Henry develops a brain tumor and dies in his mother’s arms. He leaves behind a secret notebook explaining that their neighbor, Glenn (Dean Norris), is abusing his step-daughter, Christina (Maddie Ziegler). Susan later finds a tape recording in which Henry provides detailed instructions on how to kill Glenn, and it’s at this point that the film really goes off the rails, taking a sharp turn into the macabre with no modulation in tone to ease the transition. Indeed, there’s little sense that Trevorrow recognizes how disorienting it is for the audience to watch Susan go from reading bedtime stories to practicing head shots with a sniper rifle.
Trevorrow maintains the same tone of bittersweet sentimentality through nearly the entire film, a decision that only serves to highlight how phony and nonsensical the characters and their relationships really are. The Book of Henry makes nods toward recognizing the odd dynamic between Susan and Henry, but it never seems to recognize how truly strange the relationship is. Susan is allowing an 11-year-old boy to run her life, and Trevorrow treats this more as a lovable quirk than a fundamentally screwed-up family situation. Allusions to Christ—Henry’s last name, the name of their town (Calvary), a visual reference to the Pietà during Henry’s death scene—only deepen the confusion: Is Trevorrow suggesting Henry died of a random, out-of-the-blue brain tumor to save his mother? To save Christina?
At the last minute, Susan decides not to take the final shot, a moment that’s played with such a false note of mushy emotionalism that one can’t help but laugh in disbelief (photos of Susan and Henry together appear at an opportune moment). Susan’s decision not to murder Glenn is treated as an inspirational breakthrough—the a-ha moment when she finally realizes the meaning of maternal responsibility—rather than a difficult decision about how to respond when one encounters others committing horrendous acts of violence. Whatever genuine moral dilemma is buried beneath the screenplay’s mounds of half-baked melodrama is completely undone anyway by a cop-out ending that gives the audience the death it has been primed for without getting Susan’s hands dirty. It’s the final gallingly cynical move in a film that consistently attempts to pass off sentimentalism as profundity.