A successful thriller movie needs to take a bad situation and make it even more uncomfortable.
“The Book of Henry” is a tense one built around a precocious child, which is filled with those sorts of situations — in this case, tragic ones — and it keeps turning the screw.
Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) is the kid, a prodigy who keeps his family — single mom Susan (Naomi Watts) and younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay) — from falling apart.
Susan is a waitress with a drinking problem and an enabler best friend Sheila (Sarah Silverman). She’s a good mother, but totally reliant on Henry to run her life, which brings the movie a definite creep factor. When asked how she does it all on her own, she replies, “I have Henry. Find me another male of the species who’s more grown up than him.”
Henry is one of those impossible characters, a child so smart and so well adjusted that he’s as adept at working the stock exchange as he is in building kooky Rube Goldberg devices.
But he’s also a kid, with the expected cut-and-dry take on right and wrong. His moral code is put to the test when the cute girl next door Christina (Maddie Ziegler) seems to be in danger from her brutish stepfather Glenn (Dean Norris, doing his menacing thing), the police commissioner.
The film comes to a screeching halt halfway through with a surprise and sudden plot twist — it won’t be spoiled here. But that change splits the movie in two, and it takes time for it to recover. But it does get back on track eventually.
The film’s central conceit — Henry’s plan to save Christina — is an outlandish one for sure, a last resort to action from an exasperated younger. It’s surprising, but it makes sense for the character, as Henry clinically investigates the situation and finally hits on the only solution possible.
Watts, a supremely talented actress, delivers a powerful performance as a troubled woman faced with a difficult situation.
Director Colin Trevorrow, in between blockbusters “Jurassic World” and the upcoming “Star Wars: Episode IX,” turns out a smaller, often quirky film. Henry and Peter’s treehouse is decked out with all sorts of handcrafted machines and the animated opening credits show a real attention to the details of this lived-in world.
The film’s big payout is a fascinating juxtaposition between a children’s school talent show and a taut showdown in a forest, with Susan’s feeling of dread accentuated by the staccato beats of a dance recital.
In just three films, Trevorrow has turned out distinct, compelling works. His debut “Safety Not Guaranteed” was an offbeat indie comedy, then he landed with an energetic franchise blockbuster in “Jurassic World” and now a tense thriller with “The Book of Henry.” With a little epic like “Star Wars” next in the docket, it’s an impressive career trajectory for the young director.