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Five Years Later, It’s Even More Astounding That ‘The Book of Henry’ Exists

‘Jurassic World Dominion’ director Colin Trevorrow once seemed on the shortlist to be the next Spielberg. Then came this 2017 commercial and critical disaster, which remains fascinating, daring and terrible in equal measure

It’s a common complaint: Why doesn’t Hollywood take chances on original ideas anymore? Amidst all the sequels, prequels, superhero movies, Star Wars spinoffs, remakes and adaptations, why can’t studios make a little room for something that isn’t a franchise? What happened to the daring? What happened to the true visionaries?

How quickly we forget that such a movie came out almost exactly five years ago. It was a commercial bomb. It was derided by critics. Really, it’s not good at all. It severely tarnished its director’s reputation and became (in his detractors’ mind) proof that he was a sham, undeserving of the hype surrounding him. And yet, precisely because it was so audacious, the film remains an object of fascination. This Friday, Colin Trevorrow finally returns with his first movie since that debacle, Jurassic World Dominion. But many people won’t ever let him live down the fact that he’s responsible for The Book of Henry.

For a while, everything seemed to be going Trevorrow’s way. In his mid 30s, after going to NYU, interning at Saturday Night Live and working on spec scripts, he made a splash at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival with Safety Not Guaranteed, a crowd-pleasing sci-fi comedy about a skeptical writer (Aubrey Plaza) who meets a man (Mark Duplass) convinced he’s conquered time travel. Funny, earnest and likable, Safety Not Guaranteed opened on June 8, 2012, doing decent box office for a low-budget indie and going on to win an Independent Spirit Award. 

But perhaps more importantly, it established Trevorrow as a promising new filmmaker — which, of course, meant that he would soon be swooped up for a big blockbuster. That would be 2015’s Jurassic World, which was meant to reignite interest in the series after 2001’s lackluster Jurassic Park III. But even though Steven Spielberg had supposedly been the guy who tapped Trevorrow for the job, those were big shoes to fill for someone who’d only made a small Sundance hit. And Trevorrow knew it. 

“You know, I love these kinds of films,” Trevorrow said about blockbusters before Jurassic World’s release. “They’re part of the kinds of movies that informed my love for film in the first place, and yet I felt that it was almost crucial, almost an imperative, to make a series of films that would allow me to build my voice and hone my craft. That’s why we have a farm system in sports, that’s why we have filmmakers make many movies before they reach this level. And so if I had any trepidation about doing it, it was because of that. … I had to almost play the role of myself 20 years from now, with far more experience and far more knowledge, and I went method the whole damn time.”

I know two things for sure: First, Jurassic World is one of the worst blockbusters of recent times and, second, that fact didn’t matter one bit, because the movie made so much money, bringing in approximately $1.7 billion worldwide. Jurassic World, which opened June 12, 2015, cemented Chris Pratt’s post-Parks and Recreation film stardom and guaranteed that Trevorrow would no longer be thought of as the Safety Not Guaranteed guy. Two months later, it was announced he’d be directing Star Wars: Episode IX, putting him at the center of two of Hollywood’s biggest properties. (This was a period when Lucasfilm was scooping up several rising filmmakers, including Rian Johnson and the team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller.) It’s always dicey to be labeled “the next Spielberg,” but Trevorrow definitely seemed like a possible heir to the throne.

But before he’d make Episode IX, Trevorrow had another film he was focused on. Just a few months before Jurassic World came out, he’d signed on to direct a secret project, based on an original screenplay, called The Book of Henry. Not much was known about the film, which was written by novelist Gregg Hurwitz and starred Oscar-nominee Naomi Watts and Room’s Jacob Tremblay. But this Focus Features release seemed to be an intriguing change of pace for Trevorrow — a back-to-his-roots move after Jurassic World’s CGI spectacle. (In fact, because he was going to do The Book of Henry, he wouldn’t have time to direct Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.) It was the kind of career pivot that filmgoers should champion: an A-list director using his power to make a personal project that was concerned with more than overblown action sequences and existing intellectual property.

In retrospect, I think I knew that The Book of Henry was doomed once I heard that it was going to be premiering at the 2017 Los Angeles Film Festival. A relatively modest local festival that wasn’t usually the launching pad for major new films, LAFF debuted the movie just two days before it opened in theaters. There was little fanfare. And then critics saw the film and understood why.

At the time while writing about The Book of Henry, I couldn’t go into too much detail about the plot for fear of SPOILERS, but five years later, it can all be revealed, even though it’s still fairly unbelievable to me. Watts plays Susan, a working-class single mom raising her sons Henry (Jaeden Martell) and Peter (Tremblay). Henry is a young genius, the glue of his film who’s wisely investing his mom’s money and watching over his younger brother. Then, one day, he is diagnosed with a brain tumor and dies. 

That might lead you to think that The Book of Henry is a tear-jerker about learning to cope with loss. And while Trevorrow’s film is partly that, the movie brazenly shifts direction soon after. Henry was convinced that a neighbor girl, Christina (Maddie Ziegler), is being abused by her dad, Glenn (Breaking Bad’s Dean Norris). And now that Henry is dead, Susan has been given a notebook her son left behind, which details a foolproof plan for killing Glenn (and getting away with it) since the authorities won’t intervene to help Christina. The vast majority of mothers would see this book, be taken aback, reflect on the lengths Henry would have gone to protect Christina and then never think about it again. Well, The Book of Henry is about the one mom who decides to carry out her dead son’s plan. Susan is gonna murder Glenn.

Part melodrama, part revenge thriller, part faux-Spielbergian childhood saga, The Book of Henry prompted the sort of “What the hell?!?” articles that become a pile-on once a film is labeled a disaster. Slate called it “a tonal mix of My Dog Skip and Rear Window. It is the banana and mayonnaise sandwich of movies. It mixes two things that should never be mixed, and it is the whitest thing you will come into contact with on whatever day you happen to consume it.” “The Book of Henry feels cursed,” Vox’s Emily St. James declared. “And by that, I mean literally cursed. It reminded me of the famed videotape from The Ring — once you’ve seen it, you have to pass it along to somebody else, have to make them watch it, too, or else you’ll be dead in a week, the movie’s strange, twitching form crawling out of your local multiplex to haunt you down.” Not that those hyperbolic takedowns inspired the curious to check out this dud: The Book of Henry tanked, making barely $4.5 million in the U.S. Three months later, Lucasfilm announced that Trevorrow would no longer be making Episode IX.

All those involved swore the timing of his Star Wars exit was mere coincidence, even though several of the negative reviews expressed shock that this guy was gonna be responsible for shepherding Lucas’ beloved franchise. “Creative differences” were cited for the split, but a year after The Book of Henry, Trevorrow was asked if the movie had been a dealbreaker. “You know, I don’t know,” he said. “I mean, I can’t really speculate on it. I’ll tell you that the reaction to Book of Henry was far more damaging than the actual movie. And I don’t mean specifically at Lucasfilm. I mean, that was a very acidic situation. And, look, every director who has worked in Lucasfilm put their heart and soul into the job and they left it all on the field, and the bottom line here is that sometimes creative people can’t find a shared path through the woods.”

Directors and studios have falling-outs all the time. (And lord knows Lucasfilm has had its issues with filmmakers: Remember that the company fired Lord and Miller during the middle of shooting Solo.) But the twin humiliations of The Book of Henry and losing Episode IX left Trevorrow looking seriously professionally damaged. In that same interview, he sounded deeply deflated by the beating The Book of Henry took, explaining that he made the movie as a response to the cultural climate he saw around him. “I mean, I made a film about holding predatory men in positions of power accountable for assault, and that is an uncomfortable subject to talk about,” he said. “But we are talking about it now and we’re listening and I hope the negative response won’t deter other filmmakers from telling these stories, because we need to hear them, both in life and in art.”

That’s a commendable reason to make a movie, but The Book of Henry was such a tonal nightmare, moving from sweet to dark without warning, that its enlightened aspirations drowned in a sea of silly plot twists and utterly unmotivated character choices. (Watts can be a terrific actress, but even she can’t fully sell Susan’s abrupt transformation into a would-be assassin.) It didn’t help Trevorrow’s case that, a little later, he tried to explain how The Book of Henry was actually a “carbon copy” of the original Star Wars — “[I]t’s a foundational myth,” he insisted. “It’s a noble ghost story. Where a character lives on after death in order to guide a hero to find their strength and defeat ultimate evil” — which only made it seem like he couldn’t let go of the fact that his latest movie was bad. (And let’s not forget his tone-deaf 2015 tweet in which he said that women directors don’t want to make blockbusters because they “have clear voices and stories to tell that don’t necessarily involve superheroes or spaceships or dinosaurs.”) For anyone who felt Safety Not Guaranteed was cute but slight — or thought Jurassic World was miles removed from the ingenuity and wit of the original Jurassic Park — it felt like long-awaited comeuppance for an overrated filmmaker. 

In the last few years, Trevorrow has mostly been out of the spotlight after his initial meteoric rise. He ended up with a story credit on The Rise of Skywalker, a movie so terrible that, you could argue, his lack of involvement in it turned out to be a savvy career move. (After all, it’s impossible to imagine that having him behind the camera would have done anything to make the film worse.) And he’s been busy with Jurassic World Dominion, which is set to be the conclusion of this recent trilogy. In interviews, he’s tried to position his exodus from Episode IX as a good thing that ensured Dominion would be great. “What I appreciate about having worked on Star Wars is that I really got a practice run at making a new version of something we loved when we were kids and bringing it to a satisfying conclusion,” he said.

No one’s asked him about The Book of Henry, though, although the internet hasn’t forgotten his past cinematic sins. But when the film came up back in 2018, Trevorrow was unapologetic about what he had tried to achieve. “I don’t fault anyone for thinking that movie takes too many turns too quickly or jumps between genres or goes completely batshit crazy, because it does,” he said. “Our world is batshit crazy and our news cycle takes sharp turns every single day that seem entirely surreal. And that film felt like the way I felt over the past two years: just enraged by these events that I am powerless to stop and at times feeling like I’m losing my own compass as I try to deal with them. And so it was just the story that I wanted to tell in 2015 as we headed into that election. It’s just what the world looked like to me.”

From a generous point-of-view, you can see that The Book of Henry is a movie driven by extreme emotions, almost as if it’s channeling the unfathomable grief Susan feels about the loss of her son. On one level, the film knows it’s over-the-top, chronicling an anguished mother’s ill-conceived mission to kill a suspected abuser as a bizarre tribute to Henry, whose memory she’s trying to preserve by carrying out his ridiculous plan. We’re meant to be shocked by her behavior, but also touched by the ridiculous lengths those in mourning will go to make themselves whole. The Book of Henry was one of 2015’s worst films, but it was a disastrous misfire that really swung for the fences, talking about abuse and loss in a flagrantly melodramatic way designed to provoke a response. Trevorrow got a response, all right, but not the one he wanted.

I don’t have much patience for “so bad, it’s good” movies. My feeling is that I still have so many legitimately great movies to see that I don’t want to waste a moment on risible dreck. And while tempting, it’s lazy to punch down on awful films, getting your licks in on a decided-upon catastrophe. Which is my way of saying that, while I would never tell you to see The Book of Henry, I never could bring myself to join in on the ridicule, either. Part of its badness stems from its originality — it’s this oddball unicorn made at a time when non-franchise films are having a hard time thriving — and from the fact that everyone involved committed to it completely. Watts has done a lot better work elsewhere, but she so believes in Susan’s quest that her performance is downright poignant. It’s strangely moving when a collection of creative, talented people are so focused on what they’re doing that they have no idea of the imminent trainwreck ahead.

No doubt Jurassic World Dominion will be a commercial triumph, inspiring dozens of “Trevorrow is back!” articles. He’ll be back in Hollywood’s good graces. But although I haven’t seen the new movie, I doubt it will contain a fraction of the bizarre, electric wrongheadedness of The Book of Henry. Nobody should seek out bad movies, but they have their value. For better or worse, mostly worse, they remind us what’s possible — something that stale, polished, predictable franchise movies do their best to make us forget.