While his frequent collaborators have fun in the jungle, the usually comic Luke Wilson goes down to the river in Henry Poole Is Here, a heavy-handed film about a fatally ill atheist who has faith forced upon him. It’s forced upon the audience, too, in a debut script by Albert Torres, whose reference to Noam Chomsky would mark him as a first-timer even if his message wasn’t written with italics and exclamation points.
When Henry (Wilson) discovers he doesn’t have much longer to live—specifics aren’t revealed—he isolates himself, buying a house in the neighborhood where he grew up to soak up the vibes of the last place he remembers being happy. Turns out Henry’s choice is actually a hermit’s nightmare, with his real-estate agent (Cheryl Hines) and hood busybody Esperanza (Babel’s Adriana Barraza) immediately paying visits and a young, mute, I-see-dead-people-looking neighbor girl, Millie (Morgan Lily), recording and replaying his every conversation. His quest to be left alone is really ruined, however, when Esperanza becomes convinced that Henry’s bad stucco job actually reveals the face of Jesus Christ. Of course, Henry thinks she’s nuts and repeatedly asks her, not very politely, to stop bothering him. But she has her own tragedy fueling her belief, and so Esperanza starts inviting her priest (George Lopez) and friends looking for a blessing to Henry’s backyard.
Other intruders upon Henry’s privacy include Millie’s single mother, Dawn (Radha Mitchell), and an inquisitive supermarket cashier with Coke-bottle glasses, Patience (Rachel Seiferth)—no symbolism in those names. Everyone wants to know why Henry is so sad, why he keeps saying he won’t be living there long, why he won’t accept that the stain is a miracle, even after it begins healing people. “Don’t you believe in God?” Esperanza asks, as if the possibility of atheism was unfathomable. Dawn, too, while not proclaiming her faith outright, uses phrases such as “I pray” a lot and tsk-tsks at the degree of doubt harbored by such a young man.
Director Mark Pellington (U2 3D) plasters seemingly every interlude with message-ballads such as Bob Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet,” including the scene in which Henry begins an aimless walk but ends up under a waterfront tunnel, where he’d go when his parents fought and marked the spot with henry poole was here. Though Henry doesn’t go in the river, a baptism of sorts—via water-balloon battle—does occur, after he begins to open up to Dawn and lets her, yes, light into his life.
You can feel the filmmakers manipulate at every turn, and yet there’s a melancholy and life-is-a-gift spirit to Henry Poole Is Here that still gets over. Wilson’s Henry is palpably wounded, and you ache for him, especially when he approaches the perpetually mournful Millie and confesses that he sometimes doesn’t like to talk, either. Beyond the script’s ideas about faith is a more interesting one, about what exactly one is supposed to do when handed a death sentence: Do you stop reaching out and continuing your routines, because you won’t be around to enjoy the benefits of either? What if you’re disease-free but destined to be killed in a car crash next week? These questions resonate, regardless of how you feel about Henry’s stain.