VOD Review: Henry’s Crime.
In this oddly idiosyncratic heist caper, Keanu Reeves does the time and we watch the crime.
I originally picked up Henry’s Crime a year ago when rounding out my favorite heist movie list. It’s one of my favorite genres with one of my favorite actors, how could it go wrong? Well…I won’t say that it went wrong, precisely, but that Henry’s Crime is a very specific film for a very specific audience. Its comedy comes from a sense of ironic fatalism instead of witty jokes, and the narrative of a drama within a drama within a comedy can become a bit baroque. If you’ve got a taste for Russian theater and gallows humor, then Henry’s Crime delivers a unique experience.
Henry’s Crime (2010).
Henry (Keanu Reeves) works a dead-end job at a toll booth and is just drifting through his life. A couple of his seedy friends trick him into driving the getaway car during a robbery, which lands him in prison. Too honorable to sell out his friends and too unmotivated to fight for his freedom, it looks like Henry is going to be in jail for a long time, until he meets Max (James Caan). Max is an aging con man and smooth-talker who inadvertently lights a spark in Henry with his flim-flam philosophy. Henry decides to actually apply himself to something for once in his life: get an early parole and actually rob the bank he was wrongly accused of robbing.
Russian Nesting Dolls.
Their are several plots being juggled in Malcom Venville’s film. One is the existential drama of Henry lacking direction in life, and finding it in the least likely ways. Below this is the comedy of the heist, where a complete neophyte and a washed-up old criminal have to pull off what a team couldn’t get right. Finally, there’s the play-within-a-play where Max and Henry have to pretend to be actors in a community theater production of Chekhov’s tragedy The Cherry Orchard in order to have access to the bank’s unguarded entrance.
Usually plays-within-a-play are cinematic poison, as the trope is mainly used by directors with delusions of Broadway, and the play chosen is usually entirely unsubtle. Here it works because the nested plots are all lined up in the same direction. Sure, Chekhov’s play shares some thematic elements with Henry’s story, but it’s hardly one for one. The big point is the absurdity of the situation. Two well known actors are playing characters who have to play actors, who are also shamming their way through an amateur burglary. It’s all played with varying degrees of meta-awareness. The film insinuates that “authenticity” is a con artist’s grift, and you have to basically fake it till you make it in life.
The pace and structure of the film probably led to its middling reception. It is slow and deliberate, but in a kind of somnambulistic way. It fits with the theme that Henry is just floating along with the events of life, no matter how absurd they become. This reserve keeps the comedy from ever becoming overt. There’s some good dialogue between Reeves and Caan, and there are some really bizarre moments that would normally be played for a laugh, but that’s not this film’s style. It’s a structurally subtle, so that it straddles the line between a comedic farce and an absurdist tragedy.
Playing the Part.
To that end, I like the two leads. Keanu’s penchant for either sober, flat delivery or high intensity works well for Henry, who is pretty much shell-shocked by life until he learns to be fiery and determined by both the upcoming robbery and the role he is playing in the play. James Caan gives an excellent turn in a role that could easily have been overplayed. He’s shabby and charming as a con man, but also sad and fearful as an ex-con. On the inside, he could play up being a scoundrel jailbird. In real life, he’s just an old man who life passed by, and can only interact by shallow deceits. Caan’s gives a selfless performance, never grabbing the limelight in a production where he’s actually the biggest star.
The rest of the cast…they’re OK. Vera Farmiga overplays the prima donna role, but has a nice chemistry with Caan and to a lesser extent Reeves. As will surprise nobody, Peter Stormare’s stormy Russian director is played way over the top. It’s entertaining but out of character with the piece. It feels like everyone involved with the play is artificial, but perhaps this is part of the “fake vs. authentic” irony that permeates the film.
The Perfect Gift, for Some Occasions.
I wound up really appreciating Henry’s Crime. I can see where it has problems, and I can see where the film’s peculiarities can come across as bad film making. I think the consistency with which the film stays on message and develops its themes turns those flaws into features. It feels deliberately off in places and in ways that highlight the motifs of the piece. Professionally amateurish, if you will.
It’s not a great heist movie, though it does have a few flourishes towards the end that I would not have expected. It’s capable, but I’d go check out the other items on our list before ponying up to Henry’s Crime if you are itching for a good caper. It’s not quite as effective a tragi-comic film as say Matchstick Men or Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, but it feels spiritually similar to those films. It has a singular style and goal, and I think it communicates it well. It’s free on Prime, so there’s not much downside for doing time with this crime movie.