May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
September 10, 2008
(Ed. Note: Originally published at Film-Think.)
I desperately wanted to like Henry Poole is Here, as all the ideas in the film are so worth considering. I also wanted to really like it because it is a film of my favorite genre, one which I have been covering for years in obscurity, that being Non-Canonical Jesus Films. These are films in which a Christological theme, image, or reference is central to the form or narrative structure of a film, but the film itself has little interest in addressing the Jesus of the four gospels. And Henry Poole is Here is an excellent example, as it is centered around a possibly miraculous appearance of the face of Christ in the stained plaster of Henry’s house. But it is unfortunate that the film is so flawed at points, often sidetracked by music video-like divergences in a sloppy effort to grant depth to its characters. The director, whose previous career was in music video direction, often lets the soundtrack take control of the film, alternating between indie-pop hits and ethereal rushes of mood music that cripple otherwise good scenes with heavy-handedness. Yet it is worth getting these criticisms out of the way, as Henry Poole’s heart is in the right place and almost weathers even these lapses in creativity.
Henry Poole has returned to his childhood neighborhood with a terminal illness. He sits in his empty house drinking vodka, eating pizza, sometimes crashing in the lawn chair in his backyard, wanting to die in peace. To his great annoyance, his extroverted neighbor discovers a likeness to Jesus’ face in a patch of stained stucco on his house while delivering some welcome to the neighborhood tamales. Esperanza quickly invites the parish priest to validate the miracle, emboldened by a drop of blood that continually reappears on the visage. Watching all this from afar, and often recording Henry’s conversations on a tape deck, is 6 year old Millie, whose mother, Dawn, will later take a interest in Henry’s personal life. Henry is insistent that Esperanza and the stain’s growing fan club are absurd, often losing his temper in cynical outbursts. All attempts to wash the image clean, or rid it from a persistent tear of blood, are ineffective. Despite several miracles happing in connection with Christ’s face, Henry persists in his disbelief, morosely ignoring any flickers of hope or restoration happening in his own backyard. Eventually, after Henry reveals his illness to Dawn we find him weeping in the backyard, hand outstretched to the possibly divine stain. The grief, the weight of his own cynicism, in this scene is overwhelming. All he has to do is touch this face. Not to enact some sort of mystical healing voodoo, but simply to validate the possibility of being connected to others, of sharing in their hope. At this point, despite the somewhat cloyed nature of the rest of the film, Henry’s character rings true. The director endured a real life tragedy on par with Henry’s pending doom (the film being his response to this tragedy), and this particular scene seems imbued with the pathos of someone who really has felt Henry’s feelings and shared in his fears.
This really is a Jesus film, in the roundabout way characteristic of the non-canonical genre. The film monopolizes on Jesus’ cultural presence in the world as a polarizing sign. To some he refers to hope, to others he is simply a foil to their cynicism, by his sustained and inexplicable presence referring to their anxieties. Henry’s final act of taking an axe to the miracle is a theological act, an attempt to deal with this inexplicable presence by casting it in his own terms, rendering it inert, bringing it down to his level. Henry Poole’s transition in the film is not from just from cynicism to hope or faith, but from self-imposed exile to health and relationship. In this way the presence of the divine indicated by a stain in his backyard ultimately duplicates itself in Henry’s new life. His final outburst in chopping through Christ’s face with an axe is his first actual interaction with the image. And even as the house tumbles down around him, knocked from its moorings from the blows of Henry’s incredulity, he is healed – an exquisite picture of those who like Jacob wrestling with the angel, come to faith in conflict.
Hollywood can’t really produce films about faith, because faith never provides the kind of closure we turn to Hollywood for. Fortunately, much in Henry Poole is left unresolved by the conclusion. Sure we see Henry’s life changed and all that, and the film is tidily wrapped up from that angle. But left lingering is the question of Jesus’ appearance in the film. At no point are we given a clear view of the stain, at times we get a decent glimpse from various angles that imply a good likeness of Jesus. But we are never given a chance to observe the phenomenon for ourselves and decide either with or against Henry concerning its veracity. The miracles, the drops of blood, and Henry’s ultimate restoration imply that indeed, Jesus was in his backyard. But when the walls collapse, and the roof falls on Henry, Jesus leaves the film in the same air of evaporating wonder by which he entered it. The closest we get to identifying what really is on Henry’s wall occurs in first person point of view camera angles when people are looking at the visage, emotional close-ups of them beseeching the wall-Jesus for healing. (At first these are confusing, my first thought was: Am I supposed to be Jesus?) At the very end of the film, Henry Poole stares directly into the camera in reversal of the point of view of Jesus’ face, and seems to suggest not just that Henry has in his own way stared Jesus in the face, but that the appearance of Jesus in the film is means of contact between people, hope, and the divine. As the audience, we are invited to participate. A bit cheesy, but it clues us into what Jesus actually refers to in the film. Again, it is unfortunate that the film is flawed by several matters of form, as more effectively directed it could have been an excellent Jesus film.