“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” (Nuart) is as fine a film as it is a brutally disturbing one. As he draws his character study of an Uptown Chicago murderer, based very loosely on the life and rambling confessions of Henry Lee Lucas, assured director/co-writer John McNaughton has no interest in moments of pop-up fright. “Henry” has none, instead it has pathos and a growing sense of dread.
A nightmare killer wearing steel talons or a hockey mask and carrying a chain saw is too easy for McNaughton’s purposes. He doesn’t want to scare us; he wants to horrify us profoundly by the debased quality of life around us and to suggest our own part in that debasement. And he succeeds only too dreadfully well.
With a film that calls itself the portrait of a serial killer, the first friendly moments of ultra-ordinary-looking Henry (Michael Rooker) with a coffee shop waitress begin to knot the gut. “Real nice smile you got there,” Henry says admiringly, making the pretty young woman smile again.
She will remain unharmed. A dozen or more won’t--men, women, and in the most vile scene, a husband, wife and young son. We will never be able to predict what sets Henry’s rampages off; the filmmakers aren’t much for reverb or portentous underlining. The murders, three of which we see, can’t even be called rampages, they are simply what the polite, affectless Henry does, pretty nearly every day, getting inside some of his victim’s houses through his job as a part-time exterminator. (Symbolism probably not incidental but not punched up.)
The closest we’ll get to “understanding” Henry--and one of McNaughton’s points is the futility of thinking that Henry can be understood--is an amazingly open exchange he has with the innocent of the piece, Becky (Tracy Arnold).
Sweet and wanly pretty, Becky has left her young daughter and fled the South and a dangerous husband, hoping that Chicago will have better jobs than the topless dancing she did back home. And her only refuge is her taunting, lecherous, snaggle-toothed older brother, Otis (Tom Towles), Henry’s roommate, his ex-prison mate, somehow infinitely more repulsive than Henry.
Becky and Henry’s calmly swapped family histories are a horror story of their own, a numbing litany of abusive, mentally sick parents, sexually confused kids, abandonment and finally murder by a revengeful 14-year-old. Somehow none of it sounds in the least improbable. And while Henry pursues his deliberately random murders, joined shortly by Otis, Becky balances dangerously between the two, flirting with the “polite, gentlemanly” Henry and unaware of everything around her.
McNaughton’s direction, like the screenplay, is sure, spare and modest; his three actors are remarkable together. Arnold’s pathetic Becky, laying the seeds for another generation of screwed-up children; ex-comedian Towles, as the film’s moral black hole, and the deeply memorable Rooker, whose complexity and restraint make Henry believable on every level. Since “Henry” was finished in 1986, Rooker has begun to climb as a young character actor; he was the dangerous repair man in “Sea of Love” and Jessica Lange’s combative brother in “The Music Box.” Honors also most certainly go to cameraman Charlie Lieberman, whose work is never less than fine and occasionally astonishing.
(“Henry” was not released in 1986 because of the X rating given it by the MPAA. It was rescued last fall by film festival programmers and has been playing in limited release--without a rating--since.)
For a while, we see nothing of Henry’s murders. Probably because of the movie’s emaciated budget, we’re not allowed to eavesdrop on the polite rap he runs at housewives’ front doors or when he asks directions or as he gives young hitchhikers rides. The camera logs the results, the sound track supplies what Henry heard at the time. Then we begin to realize that, for Henry, these murders may not even touch his consciousness; they are simply his compulsion. It’s only when Otis joins him, first shocked, then a more-than-willing accomplice, that we see their crimes.
This is where writer Richard Fire and co-writer McNaughton set out to remind us just how far we’ve become desensitized to screen violence. One victim is an obese, foul-mouthed fence working out of his garage, who taunts and insults Henry and Otis as cheapskates. His killing is staged with a kind of theatrical, high-end movie violence--a clear getting of the “bad” guy--that may, for a misguided instant, put audiences on the side of the killers.
If we as an audience will Henry to kill this bully, the filmmakers have us. If we cheer this, McNaughton asks, if violence of this kind is a release, the stuff that “Terminators” and “Rambos” are made of, how about this ? And, in the most piteous and appalling sequence in memory, he puts a videocamera in Henry’s hands as the two wipe out a young family; our view of the excruciating scene is the camera’s. It will be this taped record that Otis runs over and over in their scummy apartment, wallowing in highlights of his life in crime.
This is what murder is, McNaughton reminds us. We’ve never seen it onscreen this way before; many of us would avoid seeing it at any cost. The single thing it is not is entertainment. And clearly, this is exclusively adult fare, and adults who are not squeamish.
There may be a cautionary subtext to the film, suggesting that we be tougher, more aware, more on our guard. It shouldn’t take a movie like this to underline such facts of modern life, but--artistry aside--it may be one of “Henry’s” more far-reaching effects.