Why, God, Why?
By Caroline McKenzie
Henry Poole Is Here
Dir. Mark Pellington, U.S., Overture Films
Perhaps the most entertainment value in Paul Haggis’s Oscar-winning and highly offensive Crash stemmed from Sandra Bullock’s unhappy California housewife, Jean. Bullock rendered two worthless platitudes memorable with her over-the-top delivery: “I’m angry all the time and I don’t know why,” relating to her misery of being a bored, middle-class American, and, unpacking the relationship between America’s white middle-class and working-class minorities, “You’re the best friend I’ve got,” delivered to her incredulous Hispanic housekeeper (Jean earlier made racist remarks). Though Crash failed to relate to anything resembling real life, Jean’s outbursts rather neatly summed up the central narrative devices employed by recent American “indie” and “specialty” films, filled as they are with both middle-class white folk who are unhappy with life but “don’t know why” (see Little Miss Sunshine or the cornerstone of this movement, American Beauty) and token minority characters of the Magical Negro variety who are there to assuage the pain and loneliness of the morose leads (see The Savages). This is a long lead-in to noting that director Mark Pellington’s new film, Henry Poole Is Here, brazenly exemplifies these most common, and annoying, tropes of America’s contemporary independent cinema, but with a religious twist.
Henry Poole (Luke Wilson) and his neighbors are conventionally indie-unhappy. Henry is depressed for reasons unknown. Unknown mainly because the script fails to provide him any viable back story and Wilson seems to believe that glumly moping his way through the narrative offers as much information about Henry as is necessary. In a climactic sequence set in a dried-up aqueduct—which attempts to ape the aesthetics of Paranoid Park but ends up more reminiscent of a Soul Asylum music video—cross-cutting between a young Henry and the present-day Henry reveals that our hero had a lonely childhood. A push-processed flashback to a hospital waiting room also discloses that Henry is dying of the some grave illness: a disease that, Henry’s doctor says, “steamrolls through the system” but is never given a name or any defining characteristics. This revelation of his own mortality leads to a montage of Henry tragically staring at the sky and then committing himself to dying alone in his empty house.
Henry’s neighbor and eventual love interest is a distraught single-mother named Dawn (Radha Mitchell), who lives with her seven-year-old daughter, Millie (Morgan Lilly). Millie, another wholly traumatized character, has not spoken a word in the year since her father left home. Dawn never seems to go to work and Millie apparently never goes to school, which only allows more opportunities for them to run into Henry and for Pellington to milk the dramatic value of a mute, doe-eyed kid. On the opposite side of Henry’s house from Dawn lives the neighborhood “busybody”: a Hispanic Catholic woman named Esperanza (Adriana Barraza of Babel, another Crash-like “network” narrative). Like Dawn, Esperanza seems to have no steady employment, giving her time to wander around Henry’s backyard and discover that a water stain in his stucco looks exactly like the face of Christ, and that a mysterious blood spot has appeared on the wall just below the part of the stain resembling His eye.
Pellington (The Mothman Prophecies, U2 3D) has insisted that Henry Poole Is Here is not a film about religion or God, but rather about universal values of “faith” and “hope.” Yet it’s difficult to believe his intentions were entirely secular when the film gives the water stain its own POV shots—complete with the blood spot in the middle of the frame. Religion being a topic few like to touch, it seems doubtful that Pellington (or screenwriter Albert Torres) would be any more willing to admit that his film is also very much about race. It is Esperanza who finds Jesus in the stain, and her Hispanic priest (George Lopez) and the mostly Latino church congregation who flock to Henry’s house to witness the miracle. However, it is of course, the white characters, Henry, Dawn, and Millie, who don’t believe in God or faith but who nonetheless become the direct beneficiaries of the miraculous powers of the Jesus stain.
The stain proceeds to “cure” the majority of the film’s Caucasian characters of their ailments: Millie puts her hand on the wall and regains her ability to speak; a teenager named Patience (Rachel Seiferth) with two-inch thick glasses does the same and is alleviated of her half-blindness. But whereas Henry originally dismisses the code-switching Esperanza as a crazy, walking-talking “fortune cookie,” once the Chomsky-quoting Patience is cured, he begins to believe Esperanza’s pronouncements of a religious miracle and question his own lack of belief. Esperanza (“Hope” in Spanish), who becomes unnecessary to the story once her powers of Catholic faith have saved the white characters from their own miserable selves, is thus the Hispanic equivalent of The Green Mile’s John Coffey, the “magical negro” who healed bodily ailments through guidance, religion, and physical contact.
The only attribute that seems, superficially, to set this gratingly maudlin work apart from the rest of indiedom—which is often closely associated with pseudo-liberal politics—is Henry Poole Is Here’s Christian proselytizing. But this sectarianism serves mostly to amplify the film’s saccharine self-righteousness, and to typify just how conservative and “safe” the vast majority of indie films actually are (Crash most definitely included). Pellington attempts to mask these regressive aspects (evangelism, racial essentialism) behind Eric Schmidt’s competent cinematography—many of the film’s visual compositions may look pretty, but the over reliance on close-ups and super shallow depth of field leave little room for the audience to interpret the images for themselves—and a wall of indie pop music. The music choices stubbornly refuse understatement: the film opens with the lyrics of the Eels’ “Love of the Loveless” paraphrasing the story’s religious themes, and proceeds to use Blur’s “Song #2” during a scene where Henry attacks the stain with a high-powered water hose. Which is to say that everything about Henry Poole Is Here, from the film’s thematic elements to its visual aesthetic and sound design, is entirely predictable as soon as you know that the film premiered at Sundance. Here’s to guessing that you can also predict whose inexplicable illness the Jesus wall cures by the film’s end.