Does a water stain in the cheap stucco job on Henry Poole’s new house contain a miraculous image of the face of Jesus, as his neighbor Esperanza believes?
Henry (Luke Wilson), whose main intention in life is to be left alone, certainly by Esperanza (Adriana Barraza) and probably by Jesus too, thinks the idea is crazy. Esperanza, a devout, importunate older woman, thinks Henry is crazy. Staring at him with appalled bewilderment, she demands incredulously, “Mr. Poole, don’t you believe in God?”
It’s a question that never gets an answer, as far as I recall. Although Henry is commonly described in reviews as an “atheist” (with unbelieving viewers deriding the film’s portrayal of atheism), I recall no specific on-screen evidence that Henry is not, say, an agnostic, or a believer in God but not in miracles, or even a believer in miracles but not miracles like this one, or at least this particular miracle. Just what does Henry believe, or not believe, and why? Henry Poole is Here doesn’t ask and doesn’t tell. Perhaps the filmmakers don’t think it’s important, or perhaps they simply didn’t think of it.
All we really know is that Henry dismisses Esperanza’s conviction out of hand, without argument or explanation, while pretty much everyone else in the film has no trouble accepting the miracle also without argument or explanation. Pretty much nobody cross-examines their own views; almost nobody asks whether, granted that miracles happen, there are sufficient grounds to believe in this miracle, or whether, granted that they don’t, a particular event can really be ascribed to coincidence.
Like M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, Henry Poole simply divides the world into two groups of people: those who see signs and miracles, and those who see only coincidence. How either group arrives at or explains particular conclusions, not to mention how people decide which group they belong to in the first place, isn’t explored. We just get Henry with his arms folded defiantly across he chest intoning “Coincidence,” and everyone else serenely shrugging their shoulders saying “Faith.”
Among these are Dawn (Radha Mitchell), the pretty, single mom next door whose mute little girl Millie (Morgan Lily) lugs a tape recorder everywhere and hides out in a fort of concrete pavers behind the garage, and teenaged Patience (Rachel Seiferth), the heavily bespectacled checkout clerk who’s as talkative as Millie is silent.
Only Father Salazar (George Lopez), whom Esperanza drags into Henry’s back yard over Henry’s protests to certify the miracle, provides any sop to critical thinking. He’s initially less than confident about endorsing her interpretation, and acknowledges that the Church “by no means endorses frivolous claims of this nature.”
Yet Father Salazar ultimately seems more interested in subjective experience of faith and hope rather than in the nature of Henry’s stucco discoloration, and like absolutely everyone else in the film he just wants to help poor, depressed Henry. Henry might as well be wearing a nametag that says “Please Help Me,” and he has the misfortune to have moved into a neighborhood where everyone has more compassion and insight than awareness of social boundaries or personal space. They’re supposed to seem humane and sagacious in contrast to Henry’s neediness, but too often he comes off as the cynical straight man in a town of gentle kooks.
The worst offender is Esperanza, whose refusal to acknowledge Henry’s ownership of his backyard becomes annoying pretty much instantaneously. As far as she’s concerned, Henry’s stucco wall is a shrine, and she begins evangelizing, leading pilgrimages, and offering flowers. At last she makes a deal with Henry that involves promising to stay out of his backyard — but later she’s back with pretty much the whole parish, gushing, “Mr. Poole, God is bigger than a promise!” Coming from her that may not be surprising, but Father Salazar at least should have known better.
That brings us to the movie’s other possible miracles. At least one healing occurs in connection with the image that’s as readily ascribed to naturalistic causes as the image itself. But then a second healing seems unambiguously miraculous, though Henry lightly blows it off with another testy “Coincidence!” — which is silly, because at face value it would seem inexplicable even if there were no image.
In general, Henry Poole seems to want to leave events ambiguous and open to interpretation, making that one glaring miracle — along with Henry’s uncritical dismissal of it — seem like a writing mistake. There’s also a second glaring miracle, not of the healing variety, which the movie avoids certifying as such until the very end of the film, but which (following an initial misunderstanding) Henry never even attempts to explain naturalistically.
Then there’s Henry’s problem, which is also never explained, and by the end of the film is doubly inexplicable. Depressed and apathetic, Henry declares that he’s not going to be around for long, and is evidently determined to spend the interim drinking and sleeping. (Spoiler alert.)
Obviously, Henry has a problem common to many characters in existential comedies from The Bucket List to Last Holiday, though the most precise parallel may be Joe Versus the Volcano. Precisely what ails him, we never find out. What we do get is a flashback of Henry at the doctor’s office, learning that like nearly everyone he’s a little overworked, overweight and overtired, but otherwise perfectly healthy. Then, without explanation, there’s another flashback with a doctor cryptically explaining to Henry that his condition is rare, aggressive and untreatable. Henry apparently gets no second opinion and, months later, remains asymptomatic; and when I say that the culmination of the plotline, in a hospital room, takes a final inexplicable turn, I don’t mean it’s a miraculous one. At least Joe Versus the Volcano had a diagnosis (“brain cloud”) — and an explanation.
Although Henry Poole’s take on faith and miracles is about on the level of Signs, the filmmaking isn’t in Shyamalan’s league. Director Mark Pellington makes distracting directorial mistakes. Twice his camera pans around corners into Henry’s back yard to find people standing before the image; the approach suggests a point-of-view shot, implying that someone (probably Henry) is happening upon and discovering the adorers. But no, in both cases there’s no one there.
Then there’s the strange stucco-point-of-view shots, in which Pellington repeatedly films the characters staring directly into the camera, ostensibly looking at the image — which would be fine, except that hanging in the air between us and the actors is a drip of blood that’s supposed to be on the surface of the stucco, but seems to be suspended on a sheet of glass in front of the camera (unless it’s just CGI). The shots don’t work at all because we aren’t really seeing from the image’s point of view: Based on where the blood is in front of the camera, we would seem to be some distance behind the stucco and the wall, well into the house; yet we can see the drip of blood as well as the actors, as if we had X-ray vision that stopped exactly at the level of the stucco. A drip of blood on a sheet of glass just doesn’t translate to a drip of blood on stucco, because stucco isn’t transparent; the effect feels wrong every time Pellington does it. (It might be different if the drip of blood covered the entire image, if the whole shot were seen completely through the blood. Then we might be at the level of the stucco, really seeing from the image’s point of view.)
The rather melancholy thing is that Pellington, who suffered the tragic loss of his wife and was left to raise their daughter alone, seems to want to make a sincere spiritual statement about how things happen for a reason, or something. Sincerity is good, but it isn’t enough.
Henry Poole is Here isn’t unpleasant or offensive. It doesn’t heap scorn on believers, nor does it pillory unbelievers, really. Some viewers may enjoy its uncomplicated, light treatment of putative miracles and Hollywood healing.
But it never even gestures at the philosophical heavy lifting of exploring alternate interpretations of ambiguous events. Nor does it satisfyingly engage the vagaries of life in a world where healings, miraculous or otherwise, don’t always happen on cue. Neither particularly problematic nor particularly worthwhile, Henry Poole is, well, just there.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.