What’s eating Henry Poole?
No one knows, and he’d rather not say. He’d rather not talk to anyone if he can help it. He buys a nice little house in the Los Angeles suburbs, telling his real estate agent to not dicker over price. When she says she could at least get the owners to slap on a new coat of stucco, he cryptically says he won’t live there long enough to care.
His diet consists of pizza, doughnuts and vodka. He spends his days sprawled on his couch, all the curtains drawn. If he’s feeling really adventurous, he lounges on a plastic lawn chair in his bare backyard, his only entertainment listening to his beard grow.
“So, where are you from?” asks neighbor Esperanza, after taking him a plate of welcome-to-the-neighborhood tamales.
“Not here,” he says, closing the door.
Yeah, Henry is Eeyore without a tail, a morose sad sack who just wants to be left alone.
Too bad, then, that Henry’s Realtor ignores his wishes and has the house restuccoed. Too bad the stucco guy botches the job and leaves behind a curious discoloration on one wall. Henry, naturally, thinks it’s a water stain. Esperanza thinks it’s a miracle—the face of Christ stamped on the side of Henry’s nondescript dwelling. Soon, folks start making pilgrimages to Henry’s home to touch the face and pay their respects.
And then the miracles begin. The mute talk. The blind (or, at least, the visually impaired) see (better). It’s a wonder neighbors don’t dig up dead loved ones and cart them to Henry’s house in wheelbarrows.
Henry’s not having any of it, though.
“I don’t see anything,” he tells Esperanza, peering at the wall.
“You’re not looking,” she answers.
Who says neighbors don’t talk to each other anymore? Henry’s neighbors won’t leave him alone.
Esperanza is particularly attentive. She bakes him food. She spruces up his yard a bit. Granted, part of her aim is to snap Henry out of his atheistic funk, but that just puts a heavenly sheen on her motives. You couldn’t ask for a nicer neighbor—even if she does guide the needy into Henry’s yard now and then to pray in front of the miraculous stain.
Henry favors the attention of his other neighbor, Dawn. The pretty blond is mom to a stressed-out 6-year-old and (thanks to the stain’s helping hand, er, face) the three begin to form a family-like bond, complete with heart-to-heart talks, water balloon fights and the occasional smooch.
Indeed, Henry could have plenty of friends if he wanted them. Patience, the checkout girl at the grocery store, encourages him to open up. Father Salazar, a Catholic priest, tries to get to know him. Even his Realtor takes an interest in his well-being. The only real jerk in Henry Poole is Henry. But then again, we’re all kind of the villains in our own life stories, aren’t we? And even Henry wises up after a while.
Henry Poole Is Here may be the official name of the movie, but it contains an unwritten subtitle: Jesus Is Here, Too.
“I think there’s a thirst in culture for something of a spiritual sustenance,” says Radha Mitchell, who plays Dawn. “I think the movie kind of feeds that without preaching anything.”
To be perfectly honest, this film does preach. One of its primary players is a water stain shaped like Christ, after all. But it is not preachy, and that’s an important distinction.
Let’s talk about that stain, then. It’s specifically designed to recall other rather curious objects of veneration: a strangely shaped cloud, a deformed potato, a divine-looking tortilla. A few years ago, a half-eaten grilled cheese sandwich that, it was said, bore the image of the Virgin Mary was sold for $28,000 to a Las Vegas Casino.
A holy grilled cheese sandwich? I’m with you skeptics out there, and I think it’s proper for Christians to look at such phenomena with a cynical eye. Some even believe the adoration of such objects is sinful.
But that misses the point of why Henry Poole Is Here. We’re instructed by the film to take the stain seriously. (It does, after all, start to cry blood.) But it’s obviously a symbol of faith, not a suggestion to scan every stucco mishap or oil blotch for divine messages. God is with us, Henry Poole insists. And if we don’t see Him, then (as Esperanza says) we’re just not looking.
Rather than mock this rather strange object of worship, the film uses it as a crux to examine the nature of faith—from Esperanza’s fervent belief to Henry’s strident rejections. Esperanza quietly spends her time trying to convert Henry, and Henry spends his pushing back—sometimes hard enough to bring Esperanza to tears. Why is Esperanza so insistent Henry believe? Because it’ll confirm her own faith, Henry says.
More puzzling is Henry’s angry refusal to believe. He sends some elderly worshippers packing, telling them they’re “old enough to know better.” He refuses to touch the wall, even as those who do say the wall “healed” them.
But he’s fighting a losing battle against faith, and we all know it. “It’s getting harder, isn’t it?” Dawn asks Henry. “To pretend this isn’t happening.” The first time we see Henry smile is during a practically baptismal water balloon fight. “I surrender,” he says at the end, the camera lingering on his face and raised hands. It’s not a full conversion, of course—but it starts Henry’s path toward belief.
Director Mark Pellington told the Canwest News Service that Henry Poole is about “a faithless man who finds faith and a hopeless man who finds hope.”
[Spoiler Warning] Turns out, Henry’s so hopeless because he was diagnosed with an incurable, fatal disease. And his prognosis left him feeling lost in—as he sees it—a cold, insensible universe. So, when one of the stain’s “miracles” appears to reverse, he takes it as confirmation that there is no God and smashes the stain—and the accompanying wall—to bits. “This doesn’t save lives,” he tells horrified onlookers, picking up a rock from the wall. Next thing he knows, he’s in the hospital, with Esperanza telling him that she knows all about the disease he “had”—a disease that’s apparently gone now. Was he misdiagnosed? Or did the stain cure him? No matter, we’re told. The fact that Henry was given, in a sense, a second life is miracle enough.
As for the now obliterated stain, Esperanza is philosophical. “It was here for as long as it needed to be here,” she says. “Like everything and everyone.”
Dawn comes to believe in the stain, but she does not seem to believe in bras. Not a good thing since she spends a good chunk of the film in low-cut dresses or tight, white tank tops. She and Henry kiss at film’s end.
Henry takes a sledgehammer to the assorted offerings worshippers have left at his wall—candles, flowers, that sort of thing—then smashes the wall of his own house. Turns out, the impromptu destruction is ill-advised: The corner of the house collapses on Henry, sending him to the hospital.
The hospital already holds bad memories for Henry. We see in flashback mode a nurse trying to draw his blood, jabbing him in the arm three times before hitting the necessary vein.
Characters use the s-word three times, misuse Jesus’ name twice and God’s name another 15 or so—twice pairing it with “d–n.”
To illustrate his desperate, lonely life, Henry is shown as pretty boozy through much of the story. We see him guzzling wine or whiskey straight from the bottle, tossing back mixed drinks in his backyard and buying gallons of vodka from the supermarket. When Henry breaks routine and buys a bottle of bleach, Patience says she hopes he’s not using it as a mixer. He and Dawn also share a bottle of wine during a romantic dinner.
Folks are always trespassing on Henry’s property, it seems—encouraged by Esperanza, who believes the will of God supersedes property rights.
More than 90 percent of Americans have faith … in something. About 80 percent claim belief in the Christian God. Most of us say that our faith is a precious, important thing in our lives—and so it can seem strange that so few films deal with faith in much more than a superficial manner.
All of which makes director Mark Pellington’s work seem oddly out of place. Are we really looking at an ostensibly secular movie helmed by a well-regarded director (who’s most known for The Mothman Prophecies, and Arlington Road), filled with a respectable cast that, despite a bit of spoiling profanity, honestly grapples with faith?
As it turns out, Henry Poole has special meaning for Pellington. In 2004, his wife died of complications from a ruptured colon, leaving him alone to care for his then 2-year-old daughter.
“I came to the point of my life where I questioned whether I wanted to live or not, because the pain was so severe,” Pellington told The New York Times. “I came out on the other side and said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to take every day for what it’s worth and embrace it, because each one might be the last.'”
Pellington knows he’s not the only one to suffer a massive loss, and it may seem a little Pollyannaish to try to salve our pain with the promise of miracles via a divine stucco stain. Most of us know firsthand that people dear to us can get sick, suffer and die. We get angry about it. We get sad. Yet, there it is.
But while Pellington (and, for the record, the Bible) insists that miracles can happen, it’s faith—belief—that’s the important thing in his movie. Sometimes just getting on with life after loss is the real miracle. The miracle in Henry’s story is not that he is given a new timeline: He is given new life—permission to enjoy each day to the fullest.
“Sometimes things just happen because we choose for them to,” Patience tells Henry. “I chose to believe.”
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.