Brutal Honesty: Looking at the Simple Complexities in HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER
9 October 2011
John McNaughton’s Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer is, perhaps, the most disturbing film ever released about a homicidal killer. The graphic violence, necessary in the film’s fearless pursuit of capturing Henry’s (Michael Rooker) story without pretense, makes it impossible for even the audience to leave Henry’s clutches unscathed.
Although memorable for such brutal scenes, Henry is not typically regarded for its cinematics. That is, Henry’s avant-garde content overshadows its construct.
Truthfully, McNaughton, at least at the time of this film, was no Hitchcock, not that he ever claimed or attempted to be. From a filmmaking standpoint, Henry is rather simplistic and lacks the polished sophistication of many of the film’s predecessors and contemporaries. However, the lack of polish actually works for McNaughton, and was almost positively intentional, in that basic camerawork and editing blur the line between the film’s altered reality and our lived reality. Put another way, if Henry was filled with clever angles and pattered editing the audience would be constantly reassured they were watching a film, therefore safe and removed from the danger presented. In blurring that line with uncomplicated cinematics, Henry seduces its audience to accept the film’s reality as their own. Thus, the slasher/thriller becomes even more frightening and memorable.
While McNaughton, cinematically, keeps it simple in Henry, he, at times, uses his uncomplicated style to present subtle, yet interesting and intelligent shots and sequences to enrich the film’s treatment of Henry, as opposed to distracting the audience away from him with flashy filmmaking. Although an unconscionable madman, McNaughton attempts to capture Henry as human, not monster—a risky move, to say the least, when considering the diabolical nature of this title character.
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer captures a short period of time during the life of an active, nomadic serial killer during his residence in Chicago. Henry lives with his former prison bunkmate Otis (Tom Towles), and when Otis’ sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), comes to stay with them, after her marriage falls apart, a tense dynamic erupts between the three. Clearly, there is sexual chemistry between Henry and Becky; however, Henry’s emotional disconnect makes their relationship awkward and, for the audience—who, unlike Becky, knows Henry is a ruthless killer—, highly unnerving. Henry, recognizing the lack of conscious in Otis, trains his roommate in how to successfully murder, so Otis can vent his own internal frustration like Henry does. However, Otis’ inappropriate sexual behavior with his sister inevitably enrages Henry and complicates the already intense triangulation. Ultimately, of the three, only one survives and a substantial amount of blood is shed in the process.
Yet, leading up to this final showdown, McNaughton includes a subtle sequence highlighting how, in an understated and often forgotten moment, he enriches his “portrait” of Henry with uncomplicated camerawork. Roughly halfway through the film, Henry propositions Otis, who is in a fit of rage and repeating, “I’d like to kill someone,” about actually carrying though with that threat. Otis takes Henry up on his offer and, in the dark of night, the two get in the car as Henry drives to an undisclosed location. As they travel, the camera, which is positioned inside the car, captures Henry’s vantage point. This driving sequence contains no cuts. The highways and off ramps on which the car travels are intricate, as thruways in metropolitans, in this case Chicago, generally are. During the drive, Henry exits a highway via an off ramp, which requires a long and sharp turn. The turn is also descending, as does the remainder of the drive following this off ramp. Eventually, the car arrives in an underpass, which is illuminated by green lights. Henry pulls over and he and Otis await their unsuspecting prey.
This drive, metaphorically, represents Henry’s descent into hell. Although both men are present, it is Henry’s descent, not Otis’, because Henry is the position of power as driver of the car. Although Henry is not dying, it is as though he must go to this hell-like state to take another’s life, or, in this case, witness someone else taking a life. That is, this hell is a metal hell, a place consuming Henry and cannot be escaped until another’s life gets sacrificed to its clutches. As the car turns sharply on the off ramp, Henry spirals downward, driven down to this hell—both literally and figuratively—by his madness. When finally arriving at the underpass, the green glow infuses the shot with discontent and fear. The infected, unnatural color, as discussed in previous entries on this blog, historically represents the devil. In the putrid underpass, Henry reaches his hell-like state and lurks there awaiting death. Unnerving as it is, moments like this help the audience understand something about Henry; comprehend something incomprehensible about how a serial killer operates.
This particular scene is brief and easily overlooked, but, upon closer investigation, its subtle, haunting implication cleverly exemplifies the madness driving Henry. Literally, the shot shows how Henry and Otis arrive at the murder. Figuratively, the sequence shows how Henry mentally arrives at the murder.
Although McNaughton did not emphasize cinematic prowess in Henry, his uncomplicated cinematics are clever. Dismissing his simple approach as elementary is a discredit to the film. There is something more to Henry than its brutality; there are moments, like that in the car, that are simple in style and complex in meaning.