Friday, August 15, 2008

Henry Poole is Here: Whimsical fantasy

Henry Poole Is Here (2008) • View trailer for Henry Poole Is Here
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.15.08
Buy DVD: Henry Poole Is Here • Buy Blu-Ray: Henry Poole Is Here [Blu-ray]

The quiet, unshaven man, some unknown sorrow weighing him down like the chains binding Marley's ghost, pays cash for the dilapidated, cookie-cutter house in a drab, middle-class Los Angeles neighborhood.

He moves in with minimal furniture, closes all the drapes and pulls all the blinds, and withdraws into a subsistence diet of doughnuts, pizza and alcohol. He wants only to be left alone.
Henry Poole (Luke Wilson) only wants to be left alone, and he naively believes
that retreating within his own house will afford that level of privacy. Imagine
his chagrin, then, when the house itself has other ideas...

God — fate, karma, whatever — has other plans.

Henry Poole Is Here is a quiet little treasure: a rare movie that treats faith, hope and religious conviction with a dignity too frequently absent on the big screen. Director Mark Pellington (Arlington Road, The Mothman Prophecies) and writer Albert Torres, making an impressive big-screen scripting debut, deliver a tender, character-driven drama that at times feels very much like 2005's Millions, an equally delicate British film that confronted Earth-bound miracles with a similar compassion.

Pellington's film is unhurried and expectant, much like its central character. The atmosphere and approach are wholly unlike this director's previous films and TV work — notably half a dozen episodes of Cold Case — which tended to be exploitative and amped-up. Not all directors can so successfully alter their approach to fit the material, but Pellington certainly does so here; he's perfectly content to let Torres' narrative unfold at its own measured pace.

The result is painfully intimate — far more authentic than any so-called "reality" project, such as the laughably unpersuasive American Teen — as if we were eavesdropping on this man at the worst possible moment.

At the risk of sounding like a soapbox lecturer, this once again demonstrates the degree to which scripted drama — which is to say, fiction — can feel far more real than staged and hokey "documentaries."

The title character, Henry, is played by Luke Wilson at his mopey, disheveled best. The actor keeps his usual smugness and smart mouth corked (or Pellington does), instead delivering a carefully modulated less-is-more performance. Henry dresses so sloppily, tends to himself so badly, that at first blush he could be mistaken for a street person ... but even a casual glimpse into his eyes reveals intelligence, pain and something else. Betrayal? Anger?

Answers come slowly.

Henry has purchased this house, in this neighborhood, because it's close to the house in which he grew up. That one, sadly, wasn't on the market; instead, he contents himself with occasionally staring at it from across the street. Aside from these visits, and his equally brief sallies to a nearby grocery store, he tries to remain indoors.

But that plan goes awry immediately, when the neighbor to one side, Esperanza (Adriana Barraza), drops by with a welcoming plate of homemade tamales. She's friendly, inquisitive, just this side of pushy; Henry, some trace of good breeding still functioning, doesn't want to be rude. But he does want to be left alone.

The house on the other side of his, he soon discovers, is occupied by a single mother, Dawn (Radha Mitchell), and her owl-eyed little girl, Millie (Morgan Lily, quite a charmer), who carries a cassette recorder wherever she goes. The girl, preternaturally quiet, has a habit of taping people when they're not aware of it.

Then Henry walks into his back yard one day and finds Esperanza staring, utterly transfixed, at one of his outer walls. Her gaze is riveted to a brownish stain left on the freshly painted stucco; she insists that it's the face of Jesus ... a modern-day miracle. Henry can't see it (nor can we, leaning forward and squinting from our seats).

Esperanza calls her pastor, Father Salizar (George Lopez). Henry, feeling his privacy invaded, is unsympathetic; Father Salizar, more sensitive to this withdrawn homeowner's personal space, gently escorts Esperanza back to her own home.

She returns. With friends. Some carrying candles.

The subsequent exchanges are perfectly modulated: Henry is just indignant and exasperated enough; Esperanza, not to be deterred, proceeds with the kind conviction of somebody who knows the battle can be won, if she's simply patient enough. As their encounters continue, Henry's shell begins to crumble; he resents that even more.

For his own part, he becomes increasingly curious about the little girl on the other side of his property, and the oddly protective enclosure she has constructed from loose paving bricks in her own back yard. He finally approaches her gently and comments, not really expecting an answer, that she doesn't talk much. She nods.

"That's all right," he replies, eyes widening slightly, in surprise, at his own candor. "I don't like to talk much either."

Then the stain — the face, the apparition, whatever — on his wall exudes a small but distinct drop of bright, red blood.

And everything changes.

Despite the obvious fact that Henry lives in a neighborhood filled with people, the cast of characters in his saga remains relatively small. The only other individual of significance is Patience (Rachel Seiferth, radiantly engaging), a check-out clerk at the aforementioned supermarket; she's a friendly, willowy young woman whose obviously cute features are concealed behind what the Brits so descriptively call "jam-jar" glasses.

Patience — whose name is no more accidental than Dawn's — keeps trying to chat Henry up; he rebuffs her and regrets it immediately. Their interplay is just as delicately handled as Henry's brittle encounters with Esperanza, or his growing candor with Dawn.

Everybody looks and sounds so natural that I eventually forgot I was watching actors; during the course of this movie, they become their characters.

The story's deep mystery keeps us curious — what has driven Henry to this place? — but that detail so frequently recedes into the background that it becomes one of Hitchcock's MacGuffins: the thin excuse for a plot that functions mostly to get us involved with the characters.

Henry Poole Is Here — such a perfect title, particularly when we finally get its payoff — mostly is concerned with the need to bear witness, as we wonder whether this withdrawn man will be able to cast off his protective armor, or whether he'll succumb to the crisis gnawing at his guts.

I recall the big-screen adaptation of Anne Tyler's The Accidental Tourist, a story about a similarly lonely and self-isolating man, where we spent the entire film waiting for William Hurt to smile. Or the more recent Lars and the Real Girl, as we wondered whether Ryan Gosling's unusual obsession somehow would guide him back to genuine love and warmth.

The details aren't absolutely perfect here. We can't help wanting to know what sort of former career would allow Henry to plunk down enough cash to purchase his house outright; we're similarly left in the dark about the friends, acquaintances and business associates he might have left behind. Somewhere. Would nobody be looking for this guy?

One also wonders how Dawn manages to put food on the table, since she always seems to be home.

But this is small stuff in a film that gets most of the details right. The characters are deftly established; they dress appropriately; the neighborhood and its houses feel right. And I was delighted by this story's poetic use of the nearby Los Angeles "River," with its cavernous concrete barriers: a still richly odd city landmark that never fails to be striking.

I don't want to oversell the merchandise; this film certainly isn't for all tastes, and some will find it boring and pointless (which simply means that they, too, lack the faith and sense of wonder so central to this narrative). But those who appreciate quirky, character-driven stories, about lost souls struggling to re-establish connections, are advised to give Henry Poole a try.

What have you got to lose?

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