Reviewed by: Patton Dodd
Starring: Thomas Jay Ryan, James Urbaniak, Parker Posey, Maria Porter, James Saito / Director: Hal Hartley / Released by: Sony Pictures Classics
Filmmaker Hal Hartley is to independent cinema what Michael Bay is to Hollywood: fiercely committed. While Bay continues to gain repute for such high-cost blockbusters as “Armageddon” and “The Rock”, Hartley remains in the (rather lofty) trenches of independent film. Hartley’s latest effort, “Henry Fool”, won BEST SCREENPLAY accolades at January’s Sundance Film Festival, and it recently opened in the art house market to warm reviews. While it is deserving of both the positive reviews and writing honors, “Henry Fool” presents a dilemma to Christian filmgoers in its unsettling yet provocative view of humanity.
The title character of “Henry Fool”, played astutely by Canadian stage actor Thomas Jay Ryan, is an abrupt, mysterious sort who comes seemingly out of the woodwork of New Jersey to disrupt the lives of a lower-middle class family. With his gift for language and rhetoric and amusing egocentricity, Henry soon convinces Simon Grimm (James Urbaniak), a quirky, dull-witted garbageman, to pour out his thoughts into a poem. As Simon writes, it becomes apparent that he has a gift for verse: his poem comes out in near-perfect iambic pentameter.
It isn’t long until Simon’s poem finds its way into a local paper and becomes the center of a wave of controversy, for his poem is not only good, it is also highly pornographic. Simon’s success presents a whole set of dilemmas for everyone from Henry Fool, who has delusional literary aspirations of his own, to Simon’s family. His depressed mother (Maria Porter) seems to take every new development like a vicious body blow, and his sister, played superbly by indie-veteran Parker Posie, receives Simon’s success only through the lens of her oversized libido.
While Hartley’s film is stunning in its language, performances, and direction (in moments Hartley’s shot selection is simply perfect), “Henry Fool”, for a Christian, must be more about its status as a cultural indicator than simply a piece of art. As such, it is a bleak but accurate depiction of one portion of America. The characters have little or no moral standard, and, while many disparate issues are touched upon, the issue of Christ is irrelevant (there is, incidentally, a priest in the film, but from the moment we meet him he is doubting and unresourceful). In short, Hartley’s film leaves one despondent, for it stands as a reminder that our world has largely forgotten that it has, and needs, a Savior.
Editors note: Be warned that this film does contain about 14 instances of the obscene “f” word, as well as about a dozen or more uses of other crude and obscene language (including swearing). Furthermore, there is extensive highly sexual material included as well. It deals with statutory rape, pornography, and other material as would be expected from a self-serving individual. There is also a fair amount of violence. While the story is intriguing and has many good points, one may want to consider these indiscretions before choosing to view this film.