Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic
An uplifting fable that may or may not be about religion.
Here is a fascinating little film about faith and hope. Henry Poole Is Here stars Luke Wilson as the title character, a man who because of some recent very bad news no longer really gives a damn about anything. He has recently bought a new home in California, but as he tells the real estate agent, “I won’t be living here very long.” He doesn’t care that the yard is in poor condition and that the house needs major work. When he goes to the local supermarket to buy over a hundred bucks worth of booze and junk food, the check-out girl asks if he’s lonely and sad. Henry isn’t in the mood to talk about it, he never is.
One day a neighbor shows up in his backyard and starts to make the sign of the cross as she stares at his wall. When Henry asks what she’s doing she can’t believe that he can’t see what she sees. Esperanza (Adriana Berraza) is certain that she sees the face of Jesus on Henry’s wall. She even calls a local priest, Father Salazar (George Lopez) and tells him to come and see the apparition. Henry thinks that she is out of her mind and that the face she sees is just a stain on a wall. However Esperanza is certain that it’s Jesus, so certain that she begins to invite her friends over to light candles and create a shrine, much to Henry’s dismay.
There’s also a little girl that lives next door who likes to record conversations that she hears on her tape recorder, maybe because she hasn’t spoken a word of her own in over a year. Her mother Dawn (Radha Mitchell) tells Henry that it could be the result of her father abandoning them. It also turns out that the house Henry lives in once belonged to the man that Esperanza loved, and that he died suddenly of a heart attack on the kitchen floor. Henry thinks that she desperately wants to believe that the stain is the face of Jesus because she so misses her boyfriend that she needs to believe in something, and also wants Henry to believe as well. However, even when blood begins to trickle down the wall and miracles start to happen to people who touch it, Henry remains convinced it’s all nonsense.
Henry Poole Is Here may be seen as a “religious” film by some people and there is no doubt that the filmmakers are taking Esperanza’s point of view. Everyone but Henry thinks the wall is a miracle, and as the film progresses we can see what certainly looks like the face of Jesus. There are a couple of things that happen that do indeed question this logic, but the film continues to come back to the idea that Esperanza is not crazy. That being said we never feel as though the film’s writer Albert Torres and director Mark Pellington are trying to force a point of view on us. I for one agree with Henry’s outlook, that if people want to believe in something so strongly, what they want to happen will happen, mind over matter if you will. Because its main character is a “non-believer” and his non belief is as strong as the others that believe, the film seems to be saying that his opinion is valid as well.
Pellington, who also directed Arlington Road, which was about a suburban couple who may or may not be terrorists, and The Mothman Prophecies which investigated the possibility of psychic visions, is fascinated with the unknown and the unexplained. So many filmmakers need to tell us how much they know, Pellington, while having a real point of view that he won’t shy away from, also knows that there is a flip side to every coin. Henry Poole Is Here is the latest example of how intriguing a film can be if it just allows the audience to think and never settle into a comfortable state of mind or thought process. Some will find the film uncomfortable because of this, but movies should challenge us, so many do not.
All of this wouldn’t matter if Henry Poole Is Here didn’t give us characters that we could care about, but starting with Henry and heading through the other residents of his sleepy little town, the film allows us to care about their dilemmas so that we can’t just push aside their faith. Wilson, in a rare non-eccentric dramatic role, is totally convincing as the doubting Henry, a man who no longer has much to believe in anyway. The real find here though is Adriana Berraza as the deeply religious Esperanza. While at first we may chuckle at her vision, Berraza makes Esperanza’s belief in what she sees so deeply felt and honest that we can’t help but feel for her. Because of her performance the next time I hear that someone has seen the face of Jesus in a piece of grilled cheese I may not be so quick to laugh my ass off.