Director: Mark Pellington, 2008. (PG)
Over 25 years ago Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote the well-known book, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People." Mark Pellington (Arlington Road) seems to be addressing this question in this small-budget but big-hearted fable.
Henry Poole (Luke Wilson) is like Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage), the principal character in Leaving Las Vegas. He has moved to a big city, in this case a lower-middle class neighborhood in Los Angeles. Like Sanderson, Poole seems to be drinking himself to death, with a steady diet of vodka and pizza.
When he buys a house, he seems indifferent to its price or condition. Despite his wishes, his realtor has the house restuccoed. That proves eventful and the inciting incident here, because one wall is left with a stain. Shoddy workmanship or something else? When his Catholic neighbor Esperanza (Adriana Barraza) looks at this stain she sees something else: she sees the face of Christ. A miracle! She brings her priest Father Salazar (George Lopez), to come and view it, to possibly validate this miracle. Of course, this is a major disruption to Henry's plans.
The other side of Henry's property lives Dawn (Radha Mitchell, Finding Neverland). Divorced with a 6-year old Millie (Morgan Lily) who refusees to speak due to the trauma of her parents' separation, Dawn is beautiful and an available love interest. The primary characters are rounded out with Patience (Rachel Seiferth), a grocery clerk, with coke-bottle glasses and bug eyes, who sees Henry's condition and names it for what it is: sadness and anger.
Pellington has created a fable. This is evident from the names of the characters. Esperanza is Spanish for hope, and she brings hope and not a little faith to the story. Dawn offers the ray of light that morning brings to the depresed and almost despondent Henry. Patience points to what is needed to bring faith to a skeptic, as Henry is. In fact, one of the characters says early on, "Those without faith sometimes need a little help" and need a little patience.
Henry and Esperanza offer two polar extremes on viewing events that happen. Henry's perspective is colored by the dark happenings within his own life. Faced with the possible divine face on his wall, he argues, "It was a completely random event. Things just . . . they don't happen like that in real life." He goes on, "Ever feel like things happen for no reason?" Here is his philosophy in a nutshell. Miracles don't happen. There is no rhyme or reason behind events. There is no such thing as fate or divine intervention. He is skeptical and unbelieving.
Esperanza is the opposite. "Everything happens for a reason." She sees the hand of God involved. Her philosophy emerges from a deep faith, and reflects a biblical world view. God is always at work and even uses the bad things, as well as the good, that happen to people. Writing to the Romans, the apostle Paul made this clear: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him" (Rom. 8:28).
Patience offers some middle ground: "Sometimes things just happen." She does not refute the miracle. She has witnessed with her own eyes. But she is not willing to go much further. Many today are like this. They don't dispute miracles but don't necessarily see a divine hand at work behind the scenes. They are not ready to believe in a personal God.
When the face starts weeping blood, it starts to become too much for Henry. How can this be? Miracles have no scientific rationale. If they can be argued away with science are they really miracles? A miracle by definition is something outside of the natural course of events. The Bible is filled with miracles, the greatest being the resurrection from the dead of Jesus Christ after his execution on the wooden cross. (1 Cor. 15:3-8)
As the film progresses and Henry's frustrations amplify, Dawn points out, "It's getting harder, isn't it? To pretend this isn't happening." Perhaps an unintended double meaning, she is pointing out the challenge to his unbelief as well as their growing relationship.
Life without hope quickly descends into despair and sometimes suicide. Henry is on that path. But Dawn, Millie and Esperanza offer hope. It is Millie, surprisingly, that pulls him out of his shell, but it is Dawn that provides his reason to live.
Ultimately, Henry is forced to confront his faith or lack of it. Patience calls him on this, too. "Imagine that there was something wrong with you, Mr. Poole. And you did this seemingly meaningless thing, put your hand on a wall, and you were healed." She is challenging him to have the faith to put his hand on the wall believing it would make a difference.
Naaman was like Henry. In the Old Testament book of 2 Kings chapter 5 we read about this man who was the commander of the army of the king of Aram. Despite his importance he had leprosy. He wanted to be healed. Learning that Elisha the prophet of Yahweh could heal him, he visited him, bringing expensives gifts. He expected some fantastic ceremony or event. Instead:
Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, "Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed." But Naaman went away angry and said, "I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn't I wash in them and be cleansed?" So he turned and went off in a rage. (2 Kings 5:10-12)Like Henry, Elisha refused to believe at first. But he went back and decided to wash after all. And he was healed, as Elisha had declared.
Sometimes God works like that. He asks us to trust in him, bringing faith into play. We may not like what he asks us to do, but if we do it we see him fulfill his promises. Are we willing to set aside common objections, rationalizations, and take God at his word? Will we believe the one who has create the world and all that is in it?
The film feels a little contrived at times, but its comedy and cast carry us over these times. Esperanza offers the light relief. Wilson plays the forlorn everyman with almost a single moody expression throughout. But Lilly is outstanding in her breakout role with hardly a word to say.
Mark Pellington has drawn from his own personal tragedy to craft this. Himself a Catholic, he experienced a devastating loss in 2004 when his wife died from complications from a ruptured colon. He was left to raise their 2 ½-year-old daughter. Like Henry, he had to choose how to interpret this event and what to do. He chose to make this film, the first since that loss, and it wears its heart on its sleeve.
Henry Poole leaves us with an ambiguous ending and a question of Henry's faith. But that is so much like real life. We rearely know the true workings of another person's heart. Only God knows the heart (Acts 15:8). We cannot judge another. But we can look inside our own heart and determine our own faith. That is what Pellington really calls us to do. Have you checked your heart? Do you believe in miracles? Do you have faith in Jesus? That is between you and God.
Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs