The Art of Storytelling and The Book of Henry

The Art of Storytelling and The Book of Henry

Last year, for the first time in the history
of my channel, when I did my extended video on the editing in Suicide Squad I indulged
in the well worn trope where a reviewer plays up needing drugs or alcohol to get through
the process. In the script it was supposed to be cooking
oil as a total subversion of the trope, but at the last minute I decided to use an old
cough syrup bottle instead, instead recreating the trope. Anyway, let’s talk about the art of storytelling
and The Book of Henry! I’m going to warn you, The Book of Henry
is an infectious movie. There’s a decent risk that knowing about
this movie will make you insufferable to friends and family as you insist on recounting every
mind-numbing twist in excruciating detail. The Book of Henry is a case study in what
happens when you spend twenty years writing and re-writing the same script. Crime novelist Steven Horwitz originally
started shopping the script around in the mid 90s. It got some buzz and made the rounds, but
ultimately wasn’t produced. Horwitz held on to it and kept making changes
as the years passed and he grew older. It’s no wonder, then, that the film is something
of a cross section of two decades of cloying children’s films and films-about-children,
from Little Man Tate and Radio Flyer, through Pay It Forward, to Extremely Loud and Incredibly
Close. The end product is, from a critical perspective,
like a sudoku puzzle. The failings and poor decisions are interlinked
in a way that explaining one requires understanding the relative construction of the others. There is not a singular problem, but a complex
system of co-dependant problems that are ultimately rooted in the insurmountable flaw that is
the movie’s basic premise. This is a movie about a mother, Susan, who
sets out to murder her neighbour, Glen, and kidnap his step daughter, Christina, following
instructions left behind by her genius son, Henry, who just died of brain cancer. Or it’s about Henry, a kid genius who decides
to kill his neighbour, Glen, but develops terminal brain cancer and spends his final
days preparing meticulous instructions so his mother, Susan, can carry out the murder
and kidnapping after his death. But it’s also a heartwarming, life-affirming
reminder that cynicism weighs us down and we should be doers, not dreamers, and we should
murder our neighbours, but only if their kids are sad, because as we all know, a sad teenager
is an abused teenager. So to start this off properly I’m going
to try, as best I can, to simply, factually, recount the plot of the film without commentary,
questions, or asides. Alright let’s go. Henry and his younger brother Peter get on
the bus while Henry, in voice over, waxes philosophic about the nature of man, suggesting
that sometimes people will surprise you, while the rest of the time people are exactly who
they seem to be, which is to say: cruel. In class Henry improvises his essay project
in front of the class, mocks another student, and tells his teacher that he shouldn’t
be in an advanced class because [better for psycho-social development] While waiting after school Henry buys and
sells stocks over the pay phone until mom, Susan, pulls up in a beat up car. Henry tells her she should buy a new car because
they can afford a new car, but mom says there’s nothing wrong with the old car. At home Peter bugs Henry over the radio until
Henry agrees to let Peter help him with his Rube Goldberg machine. That night Susan puts Peter into the bath
and then plays video games while Henry does the family finances, telling mom that she
needs to pay more attention. At bedtime Susan reads the two boys a story
that she wrote, she finds an engineering award that Henry won, and Henry gives the medal
to Peter. At breakfast the next morning Henry continues
to bug mom about the finances, trying to teach her how to use the computer, and the kids
correct her middle finger posture when she flips Henry off. They’re called outside by their neighbour
Glen Sickleman, the police commissioner, who complains about the leaves on their lawn,
and Susan dots on the neighbour girl, Christina. At work Susan banters with her co-worker Shiela. Her boss, Jon, gives her her paycheck, suggests
she set up direct deposit, and Susan says she’ll need to check with Henry. At school Henry asks Christina how she’s
doing, and Peter gets beat up. The medal that Henry gave Peter gets broken. Back home Peter sulks, Henry cheers him up
by doing… this. Then Susan comes home with Sheila, the two
get drunk. Henry wakes up with a headache, spies on Christina
next door, and ominous music tells us something is up with Glen. The next morning Susan drives the kids and
Christina to school, Henry keeps looking at her, on the ride to school and in class, then
he gets up, storms into the principal’s office, and says “goddammit Janice, how
much longer does this have to go on?” They argue about Christina being abused by
Glen. Goddammit Janice tells him she needs conclusive
evidence, and Henry says he’ll handle it alone. The kids get picked up by Susan after school,
and they stop by Sheila’s, and then they get groceries and see a dude beating on his
girlfriend and Henry wants to get involved but Susan tells him to mind his own business. Henry calls Child Protective Services on Glen,
then while everyone is unpacking groceries Christina puts a lot of weighty emphasis on
the fact that Glen is her step… father. Susan agrees to drive Christina to and from
the upcoming talent show because Glen isn’t planning on going. Susan tells Henry to be less serious. Henry says he should have gotten involved
in the supermarket and that violence isn’t the worst thing. CPS checks on Glen and Christina, but the
head of CPS is Glen’s brother, so Henry starts driving around town on his bike, making
notes in a red notebook, buys books on crime scene investigation, and scouts out a gun
store where he overhears some dude trying to buy an illegal gun by dropping the name
“Dominic.” Back home Susan is playing Gears of War and
Henry tells her to shut it off. At bedtime there’s an argument about who’s
enchilada number one and who’s enchilada number two, then Susan sings them a song. In the middle of the night Susan is woken
up by Peter screaming because Henry is having a seizure. He’s rushed to hospital, it’s incurable
brain cancer, and Henry explains his own disease to the neurosurgeon. Sheila visits Henry in the hospital and kisses
him. [I am not okay with this] Henry and Susan argue about the finances,
Henry tells Peter to make mom read his red notebook, Henry and Susan argue about finances
again, then Henry dies in the middle of the night. After a few days, Peter comes home, Susan
is making brownies for dinner, and doctor hottie comes by for a house call where he
gives Peter his cell number. At work Susan is losing her mind, Jon sends
her home and tells her that Henry told him via letter that she has six hundred and eighty
thousand dollars in a chequing account, and even more in stocks and bonds. At home Peter finds Henry’s red notebook,
which [I think Henry wants us to kill Glen] Susan argues with the book, calls CPS herself,
spys on Glen, and then is told by the book to check the safe where she finds tapes and
a walkman. The tapes walk her step by step through withdrawing
money from the bank, avoiding security cameras at the gun store, and buying [stuff] Susan then gets a copy of Glen’s signature
which she uses, as per the tapes’ instructions, to forge custody papers for Christina. At the talent show, doctor hottie shows up
because Peter invited him. Once the show starts Susan synchronizes her
watch, jumps into her new car that Henry bought, drives back to the tree fort, and sets up
to take the shot. While she’s aiming, back at talent show
Christina dances a sad dance, and Goddammit Janice, seeing the sad dance, goes and makes
a phone call. Back at the treehouse Susan has a brief moment
where she realizes that holy crap she’s taking instructions from a tape recorded by
her dead eleven year old and decides not to shoot the police commissioner in the head
with a sniper rifle. Standing ovation. There’s your big Kuleshov Effect moment
of the movie, by the way. Glen confronts her [what the hell is going on?] She threatens him, jumps in her car to get
back to the talent show, Glen goes home, makes a phone call, and shoots himself. Susan gets back just in time for Peter’s
magic act, where he summons the spirit of Henry from his trunk in the form of a fake
snowstorm. Christina learns her step father is dead. The court gives custody to Susan. Susan burns all evidence of her crimes, and
the movie ends with Susan tucking Enchilada number one and Butterfly number one into bed. Credits roll. [title card: Money Problems, or Lack Thereof] This might seem like an odd point to start
the actual autopsy with, but let’s talk about the money issues in the film. In the middle of the movie, after Henry dies,
Susan’s boss Jon gives her an envelope, a letter from Henry, that says she has six
hundred and eighty thousand dollars in the bank, and even more in stocks and bonds. They’re rich! Henry has, from beyond the grave, saved the
family from poverty! No more will mom be forced to miss bedtime
because she’s working late! She can now realize her true passion to be
a children’s picture book author! This is a genre touchstone. These sorts of movies about exceptional kids
almost always have some element of overcoming or just dealing with financial difficulty,
often poverty. It’s easy drama. Little Man Tate, Radio Flyer, and Pay it Forward
all hit this beat in one way or another. Single mom raising one or two kids at the
edge of financial ruin, working at a diner, driving a beat up car, joking with her coworkers
about the hardships of being rich. Here’s the problem. The family in The Book of Henry is doing fine. They’re fine. Earlier in the film Jon explicitly points
out that they live in a nice neighbourhood. I mean, heck, they live right next door to
the police commissioner. Henry buys and sells stocks over the phone. Susan only seems to work part time, and it’s
never a worry about how they’ll pay the bills. Henry has brain surgery and no one is concerned
with how they’re going to pay for it. Hell, our first introduction to Susan is contextualized
by money. [I wish you’d get a new car, it’s not
like you can’t afford it.] These beats comes up several times, where
Henry explicitly points out that they can afford stuff, and she never disagrees. In fact the opposite. She chides him and says that being able to
afford it isn’t the point. He also tells Susan that she can afford to
quit her job at the diner and focus on writing. He’s constantly telling her to pay attention
to the financial statements and investment reports and bank statements, but the reveal
that they have all this money doesn’t really mean anything from a story standpoint. This scene works just as well if that line
is cut, because the actually important line is this. [no, you’re not fine] Hell, if anything the scene accidentally implies
that she was pretending to be in a paycheck-to-paycheck situation and that Henry has outed her wealth
to her friends and coworkers, humiliating her. Now, the fact that the family isn’t living
in poverty isn’t itself a problem. Just because it’s a staple of the genre
doesn’t make it mandatory, we don’t need that for it to be effective or complete. But, as you can see from all these examples,
the issue of money comes up often. It is not an unstated dimension or a background
detail. The weird thing is that it actively works
against the theme of the film. This is a rare film that opens with a thesis
statement. Henry’s improvised essay in front of the
class is a direct philosophical statement aimed at the audience, and in Henry’s little
Tyler Durden Jr. screed he explicitly denounces the exact sort of obsession over money that
he then spends the rest of his life pursuing. [montage] Ha ha ha, it’s a bad movie. [title card: Henry’s Plan is Bad and Stupid] Henry’s plan is bad and stupid. It’s exactly the kind of bad and stupid
Rube Goldberg Loony Tunes assassination plan that you’d expect to be cooked up by a dumb
eleven year old. That in and of itself could be something fun
and interesting if it weren’t offensively paired with the incredibly heavy subject of
rescuing someone from being raped, and the fact that an adult follows the plan almost
to its completion before having a minor epiphany that maybe murder isn’t actually the answer. This is all paralleled by constant assertions
that Henry is, in fact, a super mega genius who thinks of everything. So for fun let’s point out all the flaws
in this flawless plan. From the start I need to emphasize that this
is a plan to kill Glen. It’s also, theoretically, a plan to rescue
Christina from abuse, but first and foremost it’s a plan to kill Glen. We’ll talk about this in more detail later,
but so little of the plan revolves around or involves Christina that, really, rescuing
Christina is just the justification for a plot to kill Glen. You could swap the motive for anything else
and very, very little would change. The first thing to highlight is that most
of this plan is drafted before Henry knows he’s going to die, meaning that he was,
in concept at least, intending to somehow follow through with these steps. This is a big screenwriting problem because
the writer already knows Henry dies before the character knows, so the plan is accidentally
built around the convenience that Henry doesn’t need to execute the plan. A lot of the smaller details of the plan are
suggested as part of various preparation montages, and illustrations from Henry’s notebook,
which we fortunately get in close up during the opening credits. Despite all the attention given to minute
details like the type of bullet used and clearing all the branches, the basic concept of the
plan is really simple. Get a gun, lure Glen out into the woods, and
shoot him in the head from the comfort of the playhouse. After that, as per the illustration, the body
falls into the river, and then the gun gets thrown off the bridge into the lake. The biggest hole here is that every version
of the plan revolves around shooting Glen. Henry explicitly scopes out the gun store,
and gets the name Dominic, at a point when he assumes the headaches are just stress. Except if we take the cancer out of the equation
this is where the plan ends, because even with the whole Dominic thing, even the gun
store owner willing to bend the paperwork rules for cash isn’t going to sell a sniper
rifle to an 11 year old. The next biggest hole is the body. Again, the scriptwriter knows that neither
Henry nor Susan will actually kill Glen, so they don’t bother to sweat the details,
which leaves us with Henry intending for Glen’s body to fall into the river, and by river
I mean creek. This creek. Now, to me, someone who watches way too many
police procedurals, this isn’t so much a hide a body creek as much as it’s a hey
boss, we found-a-body down by the creek creek. So Henry’s master plan to kill Glen is really
just kill him in your own backyard and hope no one suspects his neighbours. Once we move away from the concept, into the
weeds of the details, is when the plan really falls apart into needless complexity. The hilarious thing is that Henry repeatedly
stresses the need to plan for every contingency, but then fails to plan for even basic contingencies. The most glaring hole is in step one: lure
Glen out into the woods. Apparently the best idea the authors could
think of was making noise with a walkie-talkie strapped to an amplifier. Seriously, that’s the plan. Susan whistles into a walkie-talkie and this
noise is suspicious enough that Glen gets his gun before going to investigate. It also needs to be stressed here that everything
in the details of the plan hinges on a very tight schedule, as Susan needs to be seen
at the talent show, get home, kill Glen, dispose of the evidence, and get back before anyone
notices that she’s gone. So plan for every contingency, but the whole
thing falls apart if Glen watches a movie, gets a phone call, takes a shower, or does
literally anything that would prevent or delay hearing the noise that’s supposed to lure
him to his death. A great problem with the plan is that Henry,
via tape, has Susan run around to a bunch of different ATMs to withdraw a few hundred
dollars in cash at each. He says that this is to avoid suspicion and
get around withdrawal limits, but hitting up a bunch of different ATMs in a short span
of time is exactly the kind of behaviour that’s going to draw suspicion. Also, sweetie, you’re rich. You have well over a million dollars in investments
and cash. Just go to the bank and take out the money
like a normal person. It’s not even that much. She only takes out $1500, which is, one, not
enough to buy the hardware she gets from the gun store, and two, not a suspicious amount
of money. That’s buying crap off Kijiji money. Oh, also, last note here, just because it’s
hilarious [plywood is slightly thicker than the human
skull] This isn’t a flaw in the plan, it’s just
a really dumb line, one that they were so proud of they made sure to include it in the
title cards. You’re shooting 30 caliber frangible bullets,
his skull isn’t going to be the problem here. [Henry is a Dick] [emotional intelligence] That’s a mind-boggling statement that just
says so much about the way Colin Trevorrow sees the world. Henry is the least emotionally aware person
in the film. He’s actually a huge prick. I mean, his first actual scene is him dunking
on this kid, Tommy, for not being grown up enough for Henry’s tastes. Rather than being a kid who has been unfairly
forced to grow up by a negligent, absent, or addicted parent, Henry has self-appointed
himself to be the adult. This is tied to the movie’s characterization
of Susan, which we’ll get to shortly, but there’s no indication that things wouldn’t
get done without Henry around. Henry is the kind of person who self-martyrs
because they see other people as incompetent. The film also tries to play Henry two ways,
and can’t decide which is which. Susan tells him to spend less time focused
on his school work, and there’s a whole half a scene about all the awards that Henry
wins for extracurricular activities. So on one hand we’re supposed to think about
Henry as the kind of keener who does all the bonus work, and then some. But then in that first scene, the Tyler Durden
Jr. speech, Henry is supposed to be reading an essay that he’s written, except he’s
clearly just improvising. He didn’t do the work at all. So there’s the other implication, that he’s
a waster, the smart kid who thinks the work is beneath him. To cap it off, he mocks his teacher. [psycho social development] This whole moment is demonstrably false. Every shot of him in class, he looks absurdly
bored, and he doesn’t have friends. Henry spends his lunch playing checkers in
the cafeteria with the lunch lady, a scene where he does the whole movie smart person
shorthand of beating the game in one move just to show that he was in control all along,
which is, again, a huge dick move. It’s also incredibly hack on the part of
the screenwriter. Like, this is just the worst kind of lazy
trope. Oh, and we can’t forget the scene where
Henry, cop on the edge, bursts into Goddammit Janice’s office and threatens to turn in
his badge. Henry also gets really judgy about Susan playing
video games. He mocks the way that she plays, and polices
what she does with her free time. He’s actually really, really condescending
to Susan. [montage of times Henry is
a dick, don’t forget “violence isn’t the worst thing”] [you’re doing it wrong] What? No, no she’s not. The middle finger is a gesture with a high
degree of plasticity. You have your classic style Detroit style The web shooters And, of course, The Logan. There’s nothing wrong with her form. You’re not being accurate, you’re just
being a dick, and you deserve to get flipped off. Oh, and how can we forget the part where Henry
cooks up a plot to murder his neighbour. [high degree of emotional intelligence] [Title card: Susan is Negligent, But Not Really] How the film characterizes Susan is, for me
at least, the weirdest part of the way the movie is constructed. All of the previous stuff about the way that
Henry interacts with her, there’s a dissonance in that the movie still seems to think that
Henry is always correct. He’s an asshole genius as directed by someone
who doesn’t think that he’s an asshole. The byproduct of this is that every time Henry
is a judgy prick to his mom, the framing and consequences always skew towards Henry. Even in the big death bed argument, where
Henry tells Susan to focus on the finances, and Susan says it doesn’t matter, this isn’t
ultimately framed as Henry’s failure, his fear in the face of mortality, but instead
as Susan’s weakness. Within the framework of the story this isn’t
Henry in denial, it’s Henry trying to tie up loose ends because he’s the adult in
the relationship. Henry’s plans and behaviour never actually
fail or fall apart. The closest it gets is when Susan decides
not to shoot Glen, but nothing actually comes from that because Glen kills himself a few
minutes later. This moment, right here, where Susan goes
off-script, this is where the story finally picks up, where the stakes are raised, but
then it just ends and everything else goes according to Henry’s plan with no fallout
whatsoever. So this creates a dynamic where the film is
constantly suggesting things about Susan that aren’t actually true if you think about
it for more than a minute. From a structural standpoint, the main problem
with Susan is that she has no arc as a character because none of her real problems are addressed,
and the problem that is addressed was never truly a problem. Susan’s deal is that she’s complacent. She’s comfortable, she’s safe, she’s
financially secure, and she’s just kind of coasting through life, raising her two
kids, enjoying being in a place where nothing requires her constant, unbroken attention. She has plenty of time to bond with her kids,
drive them to and from school, take them to events, make them breakfast, and pack their
lunches. Now, she does have a bad case of Cool Mom,
she’s overly codependent on Henry, and she has no real ambitions, but the family is,
objectively, doing fine. She’s not super keyed into the family finances
because she doesn’t need to be. That’s the luxury of being well off, regardless
of Henry’s involvement. This goes back to everything we talked about
with the money sub-plot. Susan ostensibly doesn’t know about all
the money that Henry has made on the stock market, but it doesn’t seem to bother Susan
at all. As far as she’s concerned the family is
financially secure off whatever income she has, and nothing suggests that if it weren’t
for Henry they’d be screwed. I mean, presumably they survived just fine
before Henry started trading stocks, right? Being a Cool Mom is a character flaw, in the
absolute sense, but there’s no stakes to it. It’s not causing problems. Cool Mom is a surface level problem, a behavioural
problem, that makes other problems worse. Being a cool mom didn’t lead to Henry’s
rapid onset terminal brain cancer being overlooked. It’s only kind of a problem for one scene
after Henry’s death where she has a very justifiable, but temporary, breakdown. Nothing that goes wrong in the second half
of the movie has anything to do with things she was failing to do when Henry was alive,
things that Henry was doing that she, the parent, should have been doing instead. The thing that the movie chooses to use as
synecdoche for Susan’s negligence is that she plays video games and has one girls night
with Sheila, but none of this is ever at the cost of anything. She’s not playing games instead of getting
groceries or making breakfast. She’s not playing games instead of going
to work (which would still be pointless since the movie has explicitly told us that she
doesn’t need to go to work in the first place.) She’s not drinking instead of helping with
homework, or getting drunk in the middle of the day, or inviting Sheila over six nights
a week. She’s just playing games, sometimes. [turn it off] Yeah, the movie is super judgemental about
Susan not spending literally 100% of her time focused on her kids. So as a character arc she kind of learns at
the very end to see her genius dead kid as the kid he was and not the small adult he
acted like. But he’s already dead, so it’s not like
that changes anything. Aside from that she’s just kind of complacent. Her sub-plot about wanting to be a picture
book author is, well, it’s disingenuous to even call it a sub-plot. It’s not Susan’s ambition so much as it’s
the one of her three hobbies that the movie approves of. [Title card: Christina is a Lamp] Alright, this one is the heavy one. Christina’s involvement in the film is a
textbook example of a prop character. You could replace her with just about anything
and the plot would still work. She could be a sack of jewels that Glen has
stolen and very little would actually change. The plot to kill Glen is supposedly motivated
by the desire to save Christina from abuse, but Christina isn’t involved in it at all. Her agency in all of this is utterly absent. This is why it’s really just a plot to kill
Glen, not a plot to save Christina. The whole story started from the idea of a
genus kid planning the perfect crime, and the dudes who made it were so busy high-fiving
each other for their wit that they didn’t bother to ask if a story about an eleven year
old being raped by her step dad was the best vehicle for that. [bts tonal tightrope clip] Jesus, they
think they nailed it. Anyway, Christina only has a half dozen lines
in the entire movie, and no one bothers to even try and empower her, only taking the
time to make a few anonymous phone calls before giving up. Yet we’re expected to believe that she’s
so close with the Carpenter family that she has fancy personal handshakes with Susan and
slots effortlessly into the hole Henry left behind. [disgusted face] From a storytelling standpoint there’s a
whole host of problems with how this entire plot unfolds. We, the audience, first get an inkling that
something’s wrong when Henry notices that Christina is sad on the playground. That night, by happenstance, Henry is looking
out his bedroom window when he sees, presumably, Christina being abused by Glen. Now, from our perspective this is the inciting
moment. Henry has discovered a crime, and is now going
to start trying to correct it. The next morning he tries, lightly, to prod
Christina in the car, and then, in class, when she isn’t interested in a donut, he
gets up, storms into the principal’s office and [goddammit Janice] This is complete whiplash. We’re twenty minutes into the movie and
all of a sudden this isn’t something new, this is an ongoing thing that he has tried
to report before? He’s dumping all this new information that
contradicts what we were just told. Everything about the framing, music, and acting
in the previous scenes indicate that this is new, not some long running thing that Henry
has been dealing with. In the first scene with all the key players
nothing about this plot is indicated beyond the fact that the kids don’t particularly
like Glen. Also in one of the weirdest creative decisions,
even though Henry says she’s been coming to school with bruises, the hacks that went
with this visual shorthand [Henry winning a game in one move to show he’s smart] decided
that they weren’t going to with a visible bruise. It’s weird. Why wouldn’t you show us that? It’s the easiest thing to show. Then goddammit Janice says she needs concrete
proof, but bruises weren’t enough, I guess? All of this repeats again at the end, when
Susan makes all the same claims, that she apparently has all this information stashed
away, but we’ve never seen any of it, which is just asinine in a story that’s literally
focused on planning and details. We have the process Henry used to partially
forge custody papers, but zilch about gathering actual evidence against Glen. The movie has this really weird aversion to
making any of the characters actually flawed or negligent in some way. If the filmmakers gave Christina visible bruises
that they show us, well, suddenly every character who can see those bruises, including Susan,
teachers, and goddammit Janice, are accountable. Their failure to react or willingness to overlook
that information is damning, and makes them complicit in Glen’s abuse. The movie goes to weird lengths to give everyone
an out. No one makes actual, awful mistakes, they
just make implied mistakes. I mean, that’s why they’re even doing
this flimsy due diligence in the first place. It’s all just shoddy convenience so that
Henry can be blameless when he decides to plan to kill Glen, make it look like there
was no other option, instead of implying that maybe Henry was actually just a little too
eager to kill Mister Sickelman next door. [Title card: Henry is Jesus] Easily one of the strangest elements of the
movie is the weird, mangled Jesus metaphor. First of all, the movie is called The Book
of Henry, an aesthetic call to the naming of biblical books. The Book of Matthew, The Book of John, The
Book of Jeremiah, Job, Ezra, Ezekiel, Mark, Luke, Esther, Ruth, Malachi. Second, Henry’s death is an aesthetic call
to pieta sculpture. The thinking man’s Jesus imagery, for when
a crucifixion pose would be too crass. Third, Henry’s number one disciple, the
one who first takes his words and convinces others of their importance, is named Peter. Fourth, the family name is Carpenter, which
is only about one step down from when Lost had a metaphysical guide named Christian Shepherd. Fifth, at the very end Susan reads her new
story about how a flower dies and fertilizes a garden with its body, which is just a muddy
repaint of the Christian belief that Jesus died to exalt mankind, but is also clearly
intended as a metaphor for Henry who died… but made things better in the process? Okay, so, the movie thinks that its message
is about apathy. [Henry clip] So the takeaway here is that the death of
Henry is what taught Susan to be less apathetic and to reach out and help others, that she
went from being unwilling to intervene in the grocery store to willing to kill Glen
and forge documents in order to save Christina. But she didn’t kill Glen, and, in fact,
once she learns about Christina’s situation, especially once she sees it for herself, she’s
anything but apathetic. Sure, the things that she tries are largely
ineffective and she quickly latches on to the murder plot, but she doesn’t need any
persuading to care. Even in the grocery store, the problem isn’t
apathy, it’s feeling powerless. She’s worried that if she intervenes it
will make things worse. This is not the moral failing she actually
overcomes. It’s never even implied that killing Glen
might have unforeseen negative outcomes. Oh, and if you want an actual example of a
bad deus ex machina ending, it would be when principle Goddammit Janice decides, completely
independent of the actions of any of the characters, to finally take do her job in a way that neatly
resolves all conflicts while absolving the central characters for any of their actions. Susan gets away with attempted murder because
Glen kills himself before he can tell anyone what she did. [Title card: A Lesson in Imagery] There’s so, so much more we could talk about,
but to wrap this up I want to talk about one scene in particular. My favourite scene in the whole movie for
how utterly absurd it is at every level of conception. For Peter’s act in the talent show he pushes
out a large chest and says that he will make his brother Henry reappear. [When I’m done he’s going to be here right
among all of us] Now, there’s a critical detail from earlier
that needs to be mentioned. After Henry’s death there’s no funeral
scene, not even in montage. This is important because this moment is supposed
to create some uncertainty. Did Henry, genus child and Jesus metaphor,
in fact fake his own death and will now pop out to the delight of all? Who knows! So Peter opens the chest, kicks the chest
and it starts spraying fake snow out over the audience. Just, everywhere. Then everyone gets up, standing ovation. Peter and Susan hug. So, this scene. This scene. Alright. What’s going on here, what they’re trying
to do. This is, obviously, a callback to the mountain
climbing nonsense from earlier. Which no one in the crowd would be familiar
with, so this is literally just a chest that spits out fake snow. Metaphorically, this is the Book of Henry’s
version of the baptism of fire inside its mangled Jesus metaphor. Peter, chief apostle, has preached to the
crowd the whimsy of Henry, and his spirit has descended upon them. But you know what else it means, visually? It means that Peter has promised the crowd
that his brother Henry would be physically right here among them. And then he sprays them with a dry, white
powder. The visual implication, however unintended,
is that Peter scatters Henry’s ashes over the crowd. Standing ovation.

100 thoughts on “The Art of Storytelling and The Book of Henry”

  1. Henry comes across as a writer's self insert where in production the dialogue came across more as it would in life than the writers own head.

  2. I just realized one thing. Why does she need 3 extra 10 round mags if the whole plan is to have a "one shot, one kill" assassination? The gun most likely comes with a magazine already.

  3. Why would being good at maths and physics translate to being a good stocktrader? They aren't remotely alike. Unless we are to believe that Henry attends company AGM s while dressed up as an adult and finds a away to get on a plane unaccompanied to fly to their meetings.

    That's like a black belt in judo becoming a world class golfer.

  4. If he's that smart why dosent he just poison Glenn? Make his own cyanide sneak into his house and put it in his beer and reseal the bottle, so he'll drink it and dye and there is pretty much no chance of his daughter drinking his beer.

    True the police will find out he was poisoned by autopsy, but how would they prove a 12 year old did it? They'd assume some gangster did it. Hell anyone who had been arrested by Glenn would be a suspect.

  5. "Plywood is as thick as a human skull" makes no sense. You can get plywood in whatever thickness you want. Maybe they meant "as dense as a skull"

  6. "I thought you crossed a line back there when you said you wanted to fornicate with a mythical child."

  7. "It was my brother's dying wish that his ashes be disposed of by being thrown at random people. He was kind of a dick like that"

  8. What if, in the end, it was revealed that Glen wasn't actually abusive. What seemed like abuse was actually just emotional arguments between the two after the passing of Christina's mom. The reason she puts emphasis on "step-dad" is because after losing her birth father and then her mom, she has difficulty accepting Glen as her father, not because she doesn't love him but because she's developed an irrational fear of becoming close to anyone, because she doesn't want to lose anyone else. Glen, meanwhile, has difficulty connecting Christina and is completely at a loss for what to do, which leads to occasional fits of rage at the situation as a whole. When Susan goes to shoot Glen, she overhears a conversation he's having with his brother through the walkie-talkie, where he's venting about the situation, and suddenly it all clicks into place. The bruises Henry see's aren't from Glen, they're from Christina, who has begun to self-harm to stop herself from crying. That's also why the bruises aren't visible, because she's making an active effort to hide them. Glen didn't just get a pass because his brother was in CPS, there genuinely wasn't anything wrong. That being said, the stress of being accused of abusing his child lead to a fit of depression. Christina caught onto this, and also became depressed at not being able to do anything. Glen isn't a perfect person, but he's trying his best despite the poor situation he's in.

    This leads to Susan's ultimate revelation. Henry was wrong. Dangerously wrong. By trying too hard to be smart, he actively made the situation worse. By never talking to Christina, he failed to realize the true core of the problem. In the end, despite his intelligence, he made the same assumptions any child would. His friend is sad and he overhears yelling, she must be abused. She doesn't like to talk about it? She must be too sad and needs to be saved. And of course, if Glen is an abuser, he needs to die. There is no other resolution. This would also tie back to the scene in the grocery store. Henry wanted to interfere with the couple, despite knowing nothing about the situation, because he felt that he knew better. But, like what would have happened with the couple, by interfering in the situation without taking the time to learn the whole scope of the situation, by playing hero, Henry made things worse.

    Realizing this, Susan decides to just walk away from it all. Instead of shooting Glen, she knocks on his door, talks him into coming to the talent show, and offers a lift. After the talent show, Glen and Christina hug, and it's implied that they're going to hash things out. And then, final scene. Susan visits Henry's grave. Finally, a concrete visual indicating Henry's death, showing Susan finally accepting the reality that she's never going to have this person in her life anymore. The moment is quiet, no dialogue. She stares for a bit, before placing something at the foot of the grave. It's Henry's notebook. The shot rests on the gravestone as we hear Susan walk away, her footsteps fading into the distance. A few seconds pass, when suddenly a new set of footsteps approach. A shadow is cast over the stone, and they seem to have something in their hands. A ball? They begin tossing and catching the ball with one hand, the rubbery impact revealing what it is. A dodgeball.

    "I told you, didn't i? I'm going to be the most awesomenest dodgeball player, and no one can stop me."

    Cut to black.

    The end?

  9. you know what would have been a twist. if it came out, that Henry just made all of that up and knowingly destroyed the career and life of an innocent man because he didn´t like him.

  10. I remember there being a big consensus in this comments section that Goddammit Janice was actually Dominic, explaining her inexplicable influence and strange behavior, but I can't see any top comments on it now. Did I imagine that consensus?

  11. What's sad is that there's a sort of interesting story that could've resulted with writers less inclined to worship Henry as a Logic Negging Jesus.

    Imagine if Henry didn't act like Susan's garbage boyfriend and was allowed to be a bit kiddish, and they had emphasized his emotional intelligence more by making him a nicer person. Imagine if Susan's passivity had led to real problems that did need to be resolved—primarily her passivity in the face of Henry's bossy "I know best" assumptions. Imagine if Henry had been persuaded to let his mom just take care of him in his final moments, lending some catharsis that would be completed when she finally "stood up to him" and held off on shooting Glen.

    Imagine if Susan hadn't shot Glen… and had found a way to help Christina, with the help of Christina herself, without Henry's advice. Susan and Christina both recover some independence and agency and Susan is able to mourn Henry as the kid he really was.

  12. This movie is actually really scary. This is the first time I felt like slapping an eleven-year-old kid in his smug face.

  13. Great analysis, spot-on, but I'm questioning the logic in not transcribing any of the movie's lines for the subtitles. I'm an ESL speaker, and I have no idea what they're saying half the time because everyone in this movie has a bad case of the Mumbles plus using terms that I might know in my native language but definitely not in English. It's then VERY frustrating to turn on the subtitles and see exactly nothing, useful or otherwise…

  14. I feel like we all passed over the fact that the 11 year old with cancer somehow was able to buy a car.

  15. I’m watching this for like the fourth time since you uploaded it, but I’ve only now realised that the thing that’s supposed to signal Henry’s emotional intelligence seems to be his understanding that Child Abuse Is Bad.

    It’s basically the only time he shows any empathy towards anyone besides his brother. Real high bar you’re setting there, screenwriters…

  16. I can't tell if I posted this before, but all I can think on rewatching this is, "This really seems like someone took the premise of a pitch-black comedy and played it completely straight."

  17. So, Another film that was stuck in development for a good two decades? Little Big Soldier with Jackie Chan. that one was really good though.

  18. I think the idea of a maternal figure kissing a young child on the mouth is okay, normal… my family does it often enough. But for some reason the scene feels odd to me. He's just sitting there, motionless, and she just comes up to him and kisses him on the mouth. There's no affectionate, familial build-up, no hug or aunt-like dialogue. Henry is just there, looking stiff and child-genius-y like always, but if I were an adult woman going to kiss a young boy I view like a nephew and he's just sitting there and doing nothing, I would stop. That's just weird and I do not like it. Keep in mind I haven't seen this movie, I've only seen the scenes shown in this video, so maybe I'm misjudging their relationship a little.

  19. What I don't understand why the mother's employer actually believes Henry on their financial situation. Not only would a child normally not know that, but also… would a child actually write a letter? Like, actual snail mail? I think not.

  20. Something I realized a while back that ties into Dan's points about money, Henry being a prick, and the fact Susan isn't really negligent he mentioned in the video.

    Throughout the entire movie, Henry is constantly telling Susan she needs to get a new car…but it never is actually explained why Henry is so adamant she gets a new one. Susan insists there is nothing wrong with the old car…and there's nothing wrong with the old one. Now I don't know about you but even if Susan CAN afford a new car with the money Henry has saved up that doesn't mean she should. I mean if there's nothing wrong with the old car what's the point of getting a new one? It's just a waste of money. Now, this could be fixed if there was a scene that established that the car was constantly breaking down and it was a drain on the money to fix it which WOULD be a legit reason to get a new car but there's never a scene like that. And the end result is that it makes it look like Henry wants to get a new car because it's "embarrassing" to be seen in the junky old one(Which makes him bringing it up, on his death bed EVEN MORE of a jerk move)

    Also unrelated to what I just mentioned but there was something that just really bugged me during the scene with Susan's mental breakdown after Henry dies. Dan didn't mention this but during the scene, Peter suddenly starts giving sage advice to Susan about how she needs to stop thinking about what Henry would do and do what she would do. I don't know about you but it just kinda bugged me because Peter suddenly acting more mature than Susan and giving her the advice she needed…didn't really fit with what had been established with his character before and after the scene. Plus it kinda seems unrealistic that Peter the child seems to be taking Henry's death a lot better than Susan is. It kinda feels like they should have given the role of "person who needs to give Susan advice to get her back on track" should have gone to the doctor character who it seems like they were trying to set up up a romance with Susan but nothing comes from it, not even a "Maybe ever after".

  21. When you said white, dry powder, I thought the implication and imagery was Henry's…mhm…fluids blessing the crowd in… Fertility.
    …para-pa-pa… I'mma go to sleep know, I know the way out.

  22. I love this video as an example of the art of criticism, and as always, I learned a lot from it.

    I'd like to add that while the film seems to flub this point hard, placing a child in the role of an adult is called "parentification", which in extreme cases (for example, managing the family's finances) is considered a form of child neglect or abuse. When kids provide physical or emotional caregiving to their adult caregivers, it is…not good for their psychosocial development. So I think it goes way beyond "cool mom", although clearly the film undermines the shit out of this by treating Henry as supernatural and up to the task.

    It's a shame, a film that includes all the "precocious kid" tropes but addresses this issue thoughtfully could be really good…and maybe too dark for me to watch. On second thought, nuts to that. I'd rather watch Dan dunk on a trash fire.

  23. Can't recall if I've said this before but: Friendly reminder that you don't need, nor should you try to obtain, proof of abuse to file a report.
    Seriously it's so dangerous to spread this shit around. Perhaps the US is different but I'm gonna guess not.

  24. Wait, wouldn't Susan's taxes be like stupidly high?
    She'd notice that the first time she got feds at her house for tax evasion, right?
    how did Henry invest so much money without the IRS noticing?

  25. It's not a good sign for your movie when the best part is a child dying of cancer. Rest in pieces, Henry. By GOD they made a hateable character. And that would be good if that's what they were intending, but the director wanted an "emotionally intelligent" character smh

  26. How about instead of watching this garbage of a movie we all watch erased instead,it has the same premise but differs in alot of details yet still being one of the best and impactful anime I've ever watched, it actually focuses on wanting to save the victim from abuse and not just killing straight away.

  27. Stupid question that maybe is covered in the movie: So Henry plans the murder in a notebook for himself. He doesn't know he's dying until he wakes up in a hospital after a seizure. So when did he make the tapes and put them in the safe?

  28. Dan already makes this point, but had the writers wrote the script without the intent of making all the main characters super good and not flawed, this could have been a really great movie.

  29. As someone abused as a child I can tell you apparently bruises aren't enough. If an adult comes up with an excuse, even if it's not plausible really, they may look the other way. Or at least that's what happened to me.

    Giant bruise on the backside from being dragged across the yard, up the stairs, through the house, and then basically waylaid on. Apparently I sat them down a little to hard is a totally logical reason for that.

    I gave up trying to understand this crap years ago.

  30. Hey. I just thought of a movie that could also be a case study of a movie that's been in development hell for over 2 decades! Jackie chan's "little big soldier" is in mandarin but subbed and dubbed version exist (I recommend subs). The plot is a bit messy at times, but the character writing is rather strong and the theme is also pretty interesting. I personally think it a good, interesting watch.

  31. 2:43 Oh my god, I've seen this video at least a dozen times and I only just noticed–this movie takes place in Saratoga County, probably Saratoga itself. Of course I live one county over from where The Book of Henry takes place. Upstate New York gets all the best movies, huh

  32. The whole bit of Folding Ideas Man explaining why the coded autistic kid’s rationalizations and flawed logic is incorrect seems wrong somehow.. I get he’s trying to demonstrate why the character is insufferable, and I also understand the kid is, obviously, fictionalized, but something about it seems off

  33. It's amazing how willing everyone is to trust the plan of an 11 year old with brain cancer.
    And how coherent that book ended up being.

  34. Having worked in the financial quarter, I can confirm: If your bank is worth a damn, that rapid-fire ATM nonsense would 100% get your card frozen and a call from your bank informing you that they think it's been stolen. $1500 probably isn't enough for instant police involvement, but, yeah, they'd definitely shut that down when they saw it happening.

  35. My problem with these boy genius characters is just how… How can they realistically know so much information. Like you physically don't have time to read all the information they "know." by the age of 11 he's smarter than a doctor, lawyer, stock brokers, financial analysts, engineers,philosopher, crime boss, and pretty much everything in between. This character would be OK if it was a few things, but he's basically aizen

  36. So much of this could be solved if they made it a horror movie about an *incredibly fucked up* genius kid who figures out how to manipulate people into doing *incredibly fucked up* things. Change of genre, a few tweaks, you've got…maybe not a GOOD movie, per se, but at least some popcorn horror that certain people would like.

  37. For some reasons I'm reminded that Wesley Crusher – an annoying, uberchild, series-warping Gary Stu – was at least a decent human being underneath the stuff we found way too much.

    In what circle of hell was this kid written?

  38. Okay. Not to pick nits, because there is SOOOOO much wrong with this movie, but about the suppressor. In the USA, a suppressor is a National Firearms Act regulated item. Purchase of one requires a $200 tax stamp, an exhaustive background check, and a months long waiting period. Despite what MSNBC might have you believe, just name-dropping "Dominic" isn't going to get a legit gun store to overlook all that for ANY amount of money. The ATF knows exactly how many NFA items a given gun store is supposed to have at a given time. One of those items just up and disappearing off the registry isn't a minor oopsie. It's a, "lose your Federal Firearms license and possibly go to jail for a long time," kind of oopsie. A gun store that does stuff like that is not a gun store that stays open long.

    Tl;dr: This is why you don't write a character that's supposed to be smarter than you are.

  39. The entire storyline is truly disgusting and seemingly unaware of it. What ticks me off the most is the infantilisation of the mother and how Henry is portrayed as smarter and more mature than her by the story, and she’s basically subservient to her son’s wishes and beneficence.

  40. Interesting. Where I live it is very unusual to burn the bodies of the dead. In Peter's talent show scene, well, I thought it was supposed to be the holy ghost which the writer was going for and not his brother's ashes.

  41. 1500 is enough to buy what she gets from the store depending on the state and taxes. Take alabama for instance, eveyrthing is only $1200.

  42. you know you've made a shit movie when I'm super happy your child character freaking dies because he's a huge dick throughout the movie.

  43. If henry was an adult and the husband of the mother instead of child, this would be a film about how the controlling abusive husband still haunts her after his death.

  44. If Christina was meant to be anything but a lamp, they wouldn't have cast Maddie Ziegler in her role. She is only capable of conveying emotion through dance, and that's the most important thing she does in the movie.

  45. You, know up until the 5 minute mark, your summary actually sounded like itd make a pretty interesting story just about this boy and his life and his relationships with other people.

  46. On rewatch, jeez, the author seems to have issues with women and really feels an absurd need to make sure his self insert Henry explains every women how to do her job and live her life. It's almost the most coherent theme in the movie O.o

  47. In a sense, you were right about being insufferable after hearing about this film. I come back to this video once every one or two months, kick back, and play Portal 2 while listening. There's something that just recharges my brain about that combination and I couldn't say why
    But I also am maybe getting to the point where I can recite more of this video than I should reasonably be able to

  48. Ok, to be perfectly fair to the asshole of a kid, it /is/ really annoying when people "lean into" whatever motion they're making with a controller.

  49. I'm pretty sure if an 11-year-old put up $100,000 cash to buy a sniper rifle from an unscrupulous gun store owner, he'd probably do it.

  50. you know what's been in my head for a while is thinking on "The Money Thing," and thinking on it I tried the thought experiment of shifting the story to having Henry and his family living in a cramped apartmenty, or a small-ish house on the bad end of town where they're dealing with the usual typical stuff that comes with movies like this. I then had the realisation that the writers would need to entirely remove the concept of Henry earning money for the family all together, because in a context where they(henry's family)are just barely skirting by financially the sudden revelation that Henry was saving hundreds of thousands of dollars, stocks, and bonds, in a savings account suddenly makes Henry an 11 year old piece of shit.

    And as I was writing this I realised that just like the sniper rifle, the entire point of the several hundred thousand dollars in the savings account existing is because the writers know that Henry is gonna die in the film, and with the knowledge that Susan is working at a diner this sends the audience the signal that "they aren't financially sound." From there it's easy to assume the writers decided to include a "solution" to this in the way of henry having mastered the art of the deal or something.

    Also, thanks for making this video so I never have to watch the movie.

  51. Teacher: "why don't you go to the advanced classes?"
    Henry: "Cause it's important for my psycho-social development."
    proceeds to not have any healthy interaction with his peers at school

  52. On my second run through I JUST realized that the opening about "attempting to subvert a trope but instead playing it straight" applies to the movie, also.

  53. Btw school officials and teachers are required to report ANY indication of abuse or negligence. The weird lengths taken to remove blame from the principal actually makes her look monstrously irresponsible

  54. I think my favorite part of this is the damning "Jesus they think they nailed it…"

    Like, we've all had that moment when someone says something completely buffoonish with such confidence that we have no idea where to begin letting them down easy.

  55. Feels like Rick Sanchez is basically the same character as Henry Carpenter, only written by people who understand why that character is deeply flawed.

  56. Despite Henry’s supposed child prodigy/high IQ status, did his mom not even consider for one single moment that perhaps taking advice from someone WITH AN EFFING BRAIN TUMOUR – who’s thinking might reasonably be legitimately negatively affected, their 'normal' cognitive functioning drastically impaired by such a condition, depending on which area of the brain is involved – is kind of a REALLY bad idea?

    Heck, I only had surgery on my arm a few weeks ago, & even so, I was still given strict warnings after the operation not to make any big decisions or large financial purchases for at least 24 hours, just because I’d been given General Anaesthetic!…But she’s quite happily following a "murder road-map" devised by an eleven year old kid with a terminal brain tumour, drawn-up in the days immediately preceding his own death, some of which was possibly actually written post [unsuccessful] brain surgery?

    I’m starting to think that this woman shouldn’t even have custody of her other son, Henry’s younger brother, let alone anyone needing the careful emotional & specialised psychological help & support necessary for dealing with the horrific abuse they’ve suffered. I mean, look how Henry turned out – not exactly in his right mind, some kind of murderously plotting, Machiavellian, potentially sociopathic super-villain – seemingly totally lacking in any of the requisite core fundamental moral values usually instilled in us during our early childhood years by competent parental role models, where 'problem solving' doesn’t usually automatically involve the premeditated act of committing consequence-free murder.

    I honestly can’t comprehend how this movie ever got made; why wasn’t this abomination stopped by ANY of what must be thousands of people involved in the long & expensive process of making a film, who had ample opportunity to raise justifiable concerns at EVERY step of the way during its tortuous journey before completion? And yet…? I must confess that I’m almost glad this godawful cinematic waste of time & money DOES exist, purely so we can all enjoy Dan's brilliant dissection of this movie’s freakishly deformed corpse, as he valiantly attempts to identify which of the extensive list of "diseases" afflicting 'The Book of Henry' was the one that ultimately killed it!

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