Henry Poole is Here, directed by Mark Pellington, is a down-to-earth, quirky little movie that deals with the momentous, controversial subject of miracles.
Penned by Albert Torres, this movie took just one month and a meager $7 million to make, but it is, as Pellington puts it, "A small movie with big ambitions thematically."
Long-faced Luke Wilson puts his indie-film practice to use, playing melancholic Henry Poole with angst-ridden perfection. His scruffy face, strict vodka-and-pizza diet, and slow, disdainful speech set a stubbornly somber tone. You come to learn that Henry has been diagnosed with a mysterious terminal illness that will "steamroll" through his system soon, hence his resigned "don't bother, I'm not going to be here long," mantra. But Henry's nihilistic mope-fest falls under relentlessly hopeful attack.
From the moment he moves back to his childhood neighborhood looking forward to languishing in fetal position, wallowing in sad reminiscence, and sulking into oblivion, Henry Poole's morbid plans are doomed -- and he's not happy about it. All the auspicious things around him come off almost like an irritating, providential practical joke. The lovely ladies he runs into are conveniently named Esperanza (Hope), Patience, and Dawn -- cute right? Maybe, but to Henry they're downright obnoxious (at first), although his annoyance is tempered by good old fashioned attraction to Dawn's doe-eyed, cooking-baking charms.
But the most irksome obstacle Henry has to contend with is his stucco-miracle. To her rapturous delight, Henry's neighbor, Esperanza, discovers "the face of Christ" on his back wall. When he insists that what she is seeing is nothing more than a water stain, she insists that he's simply "not looking." She promptly scurries off to spread news of the holy apparition to her friends and parish-mates, initiating a steady stream of trespassing pilgrims. To Henry's skeptical eye these people are delusional, presumptuous, and in the way of his car and his purposes.
But getting rid of a miracle proves to be tough. Henry's first approach: ignore and rationalize. To his dismay, one by one people come to the wall, believing in its divinity, and are healed one way or another. Coke bottle glass-wearing check-out girl, Patience, puts her hand on "the face" and sees clearly; the mute little girl next door speaks for the first time in a year after coming wide and teary-eyed to touch the wall in the middle of the night. Day by day Henry's dismal skepticism gets harder to hold onto. "It's getting harder isn't it?" Dawn asks Henry, "To pretend this isn't happening."
But Henry is determined to deny the supernatural and the "miracle mayhem" is enough to get him positively up in arms. He springs into uncharacteristic action to destroy the evidence of the dirty "m-word." Henry moves to plan B: bleach, scour, and scrub. Of course elbow grease just seems to bring out the holy features more distinctly, and can't begin to eliminate the bleeding tear that inexplicably drips from the "eye" on the wall. Maddening! Henry is desperate to find a logical explanation to help him "explain away" the phenomenon in front of him.
Henry's mission is nothing new. There is a long legacy of atheists who have made heroic efforts to use the tools of science to explain away, and even prove the impossibility of miracles. Patience picks up on Henry's angle and throws a Noam Chomsky quote at him in an attempt to deliver an intellectually credible argument that science cannot explain everything. But I have to say I think this misses the point and suggests a false conclusion -- that science and the supernatural are separate or mutually exclusive.
Henry represents ranks of anti-theists who stand ready to believe in anything but God. But how rational is this position?
Henry buys into a common fallacy that if science can explain something it brings us one step closer to getting rid of the "need for God." In order to avoid facing the initial "uncaused cause," the "first-mover," the "intelligent creator," or whatever other name you‘d like to give to the taboo, transcendental power, Henry represents ranks of anti-theists who stand ready to believe in anything but God. But how rational is this position? Even the poster-boy atheist, Richard Dawkins, admits that his rejection of miracles as "irrational" is based on a judgment that they are "very improbable" and not "utterly impossible."
Speaking of improbable, just take a look at the dogmatic materialists' explanations of the origins of the universe -- atheists would rather believe that there are infinite parallel universes than a Creator. So they picture a slew of other realms out there somewhere that justify the astronomical odds of our universe coming to be as it is.
The question is, would Henry be so threatened and upset if he didn't think the miracle was possible? The answer is no; he just vehemently doesn't want it to be real. The struggle and fury he expresses have more to do with how terribly inconvenient it is for a staunch atheist to acknowledge that a miracle is real than the question of whether or not the miracle is possible. His whole worldview and M.O. are at stake! So he brings out the big guns -- the hatchet that is. If he can't get the face off the wall, he'll just demolish the wall! To the horror and shock of the reverent onlookers, Henry loses himself in a cathartic fit of destructive rage that ends with a section of his ravaged rubble falling on him, knocking him unconscious.
Henry awakens in the hospital to some, well -- miraculous news of his own. Not only have his neighbors forgiven him his bullish antics, but the doctors have declared him to be quite healthy -- certainly not dying. Even on the silver screen this is not the sort of ending that emotionally invested anti-theists swallow easily -- evidence of God's presence in the world is not to be accepted. Going "the way of Henry Poole" is a terrifying prospect. So viewers beware, depending on your point of view Henry's reluctant surrender to a hopeful, faithful new beginning may either warm your heart or stir up a nagging worry about what it means if all this "miracle business" is more than just a stain on a wall.
Julia Thompson. "Against All Evidence." tothesource (August 26, 2008).
This article reprinted with permission from tothesource.
Tothesource is a forum for integrating thinking and action within a moral framework that takes into account our contemporary situation. We will report the insights of cultural experts to the specific issues we face believing these sources will embolden people to greater faith and action.
Julia Thompson graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Southern California with a degree in Philosophy in 2005. She is the tothesource roving reporter.