Pain is something we all take for granted; but as much as we would want to never experience it, it is crucial to our survival, telling us about the dangers affecting our body.
In Jordan Horowitz’s (“Angel Of Nanjing”, “Wonder…”) Painless, Henry, Joey Klein (“This Life (TV)”, “12 Monkeys (TV)”) knows all about pain: just by looking at someone, he can tell any pain they are experiencing, what causes it and how to treat it.
The problem is that Henry can only tell in others: he himself hasn’t felt any pain, ever. His condition has overtaken his whole life, both physically and emotionally: in constant fear of the unfelt dangers that could kill him without him noticing, he barely interacts with people other than his doctor, Kip Gilman (“Big Baby”, “Parker”).
Whenever he has to leave his home (turned into a lab where he constantly works on a cure), Henry wraps himself up in a big coat and keeps medicines and bandages close at hand just in case.
Henry’s life starts to change after meeting Doctor Andrews, Pascal Yen-Pfister (“Sully: Miracle On The Hudson“, “According To Her”), who suffers from the inverse condition – he is in constant pain – and could potentially bring him closer to a cure at the same time that Henry’s personal life starts to improve when he meets the lovely Shani, Evalena Marie (“Dark Feed”, “Remains”) on the subway.
What makes Painless interesting from the get-go is the relatively unexpected road it follows: while turning into the horror or super-hero genre would have been expected (especially with a premise so reminiscent of Shyamalan’s Unbreakable), writer/director Jordan Horowitz crafts instead an intimate drama and character study that never tries to turn Henry’s condition into something it isn’t.
Behind his awkward and mysterious attitude, Henry is a deeply afraid man who just wants his life – and most of all body – to be normal. When he gets in a fight with another man to protect Shani, he doesn’t suddenly discover the benefits of not experiencing pain and turns into a super-human; on the contrary, he cowers and leaves in fear of his body being irreparably damaged without him having felt it.
Despite his awkwardness and lack of emotions, this look into his day-to-day life makes Henry a touching character we directly empathize with, his difference making us reflect on our own existence at the same time Henry reflects on his, pondering in voice overs (that for once don’t feel unnecessary) about the importance of pain – an importance we often forget ourselves.
By not experiencing it, Henry is out of touch with the rest of humanity but also with his own body (he has to keep reminders on his phone to check his vitals regularly, for example), making his quest an existential one.
Unfortunately, Painless loses momentum once the first half of the film has passed, Horowitz’s script succumbing to easy paths and solutions.
The science talk that tries to ground the story in reality sounds more and more like gibberish and the fascinating look into Henry’s life turns into a more generic story.
Not that the second half of the film is devoid of ideas, but their execution feels more rushed and clumsy compared to the enthralling first act.
The romance that blossoms between Shani and Henry has thematic values but Shani’s interest in a socially inapt man she randomly met on the subway feels too convenient to make the viewers fully invested, and the doctor suffering from Henry’s inverse condition is underutilized whereas a reflection on his life and more meaningful interactions with Henry could have opened up the film to something even bigger and more compelling – although it would have definitely sparked more comparisons to Unbreakable.
Painless is an interesting drama enhanced by its fascinating character and realistic look into the life of someone suffering from this rare condition. It is well-made and well-acted, but unfortunately loses steam and originality in its second half with a frustrating conclusion.