Friday, August 29, 2008

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

(This is a review I'd written for website The review in it's original layout can be found here.)

It took me six years to watch Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. I started it when I was fourteen. I didn't finish it until I was twenty. Anyone that's seen it knows at exactly what scene I stopped it.

True horror isn't being chased through a wooded area, stalked down a corridor, or to be terrorized by poltergeists. True horror is being shown your own vulnerability. For the most part, we walk through life completely secure. We live as a part of a civilized society. The fear of having a rock dropped on our heads was exchanged for a 401k. It's an assumption that the person standing next to you at the crosswalk won't shove you in front of an on-coming bus. Laws help reinforce these assumptions. So does base human compassion. Few of us project violence/malice/abhorrence on their fellow man. We tend to expect the same in return. In Mary Shelley's tale of the modern Prometheus, Frankenstein's monster loathes itself. He lashes out, killing the friends and family of his creator. And he does it in the name of retribution; for bringing him into this world and for not taking care of him. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer updates Shelley's story by arguing that it's not only the associated parties who are at risk. It's all of us. This sentiment is best depicted early in Henry. Our subject sits in his car, his head casually following the women who pass by. For no reason other than where they parked, any of these women will be his next victim.

Henry (Michael Rooker) looks like The Shape minus the Shatner mask. Broad shouldered, he hunches over himself, speaking his few lines softly. But when violence presents itself, we see a metamorphosis. It's a morbid Clark Kent letting go of his meek alter ego. Instead of leaping tall buildings in a single bound, he mutilates hookers with ease. In his mentally deficient sidekick, Otis (Tom Towles), Henry gets to play father and mentor. He understands criminology and its fundamental concepts (such as modus operandi), and is regaled in being able to display this knowledge for his faux brood. When Otis’ sister Tracy arrives with hopes of making it big in the Windy City, the family is finally rounded out.

The happy days are fleeting for the clan. As Henry grows attached to Tracy, he realizes to care about someone is to sacrifice part of who he has become. In Swingers, Ron Livingston describes the attachment to heartache by making the remark that, “You miss the pain because it was part of your life for so long.” Henry has lived his life alone. Though the idea might seem romantic, we get the sense that Henry understands it can’t be. The genetic pool Tracy stems from has about as much depth as a Crocodile Mile. She doesn’t understand his reluctance, and tries to force herself inside him. In her defense, all she knows of Henry is second-hand from her practically retarded brother. The fact that Henry defends her from Otis’ constant incestuous compulsions leaves Henry seeming the hero.

In David Mamet's (practically unreadable) book Bambi vs. Godzilla, he devotes an entire chapter to the Cinema's great performances. He doesn't single out Dean, Dietrich, or Stewart. Instead, he opts to list a stream of bit players who brought some kind of intensity to their static roles. In Henry, a candidate could be found in Lisa Temple. Her dialogue is nothing more than a series of muffled screams. She's withheld by Otis, his legs wrapped around her as he gropes and licks at her breasts. It's a scene so repulsive you can feel his coarse stubble on your cheek. She's forced to watch her husband and child have their necks snapped by the men who have invaded her home. As Henry pins her son to the living room floor, her foot reaches out. It's a gesture that's as desperate as it is futile. And most importantly, it's true. In her bare foot we see both the maternal instinct, and the inability to ever fully protect the ones you love. It's such a tragic display that we, the audience, are almost relieved when she's killed. No longer is she forced to bear witness to such horror. And there's the rub. As Henry and Otis leave the scene of the crime, you realize that the events you're witnessing are being watched - after the fact. Otis and Henry sit in their squalor, watching this trophy tape of their crime. We're forced to endure the scene along with them, repeatedly. (This is the scene that made me shelf the movie and go back to Street Fighter II.)

No movie is without its flaws. As Otis' sister Becky, Tracy Arnold gives a performance that's comparable to cold air on a cavity. A friend I recommended this movie to was unable to get past her. Not just the Lifetime-style of her delivery, but she's the character in the slasher movie who runs upstairs when the killer comes in the house. She's wrought with bad choices, throughout. Becky's job is to cull the back story from Henry and Otis, two men so emotionally stunted; they could never engage one another about their childhood. Without her, the men would sit in silence, stare at the TV, and drink Schlitz malt liquor. Which is exactly what my friends and I have planned for tonight. Though her presence may be daunting, it is necessary.

If you ever want to help someone stranded alongside the road, don't watch this movie. If you're a single woman who lives in the Chicago area, don't watch this movie. If you ever want to see Michael Rooker in anything and not be disturbed, don’t watch this movie.

If you're sixteen, find a copy of Street Fighter II for the SNES. Don't pick Blanka, he’s worthless. If you know how to use Chun Li, you'll always win.

1 comment:

Moaning Myrtle said...

You can download Street Fighter on your xbox 360 too.