Michael Rooker did not receive an Oscar nomination for portraying the titular character of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.
The reliable character actor Michael Rooker had a bit of a strange break as an actor in that he apparently received many of his more notable roles from the late eighties due to this film's festival runs while the film itself struggled through several years of limbo before finally getting a theatrical release. He was usually given the roles of pretty rotten men which is not surprising given his performance that caused his pseudo breakout. The film takes the approach of focusing very specifically on the behavior the killer. It does not gives us his whole life, nor does it even gives us any police investigation to stop him. We are simply given Henry as he well behaves in the way that he does. There's a very specific lack of theatricality about the depiction of the killer which in turn plays into Michael Rooker's performance as Henry. This is one of the performances where the character really is granted. There is never a question of the performance of Rooker. Rooker simply is Henry here without ever there being the slightest hint of acting in his realization of the man which is essentially in giving us the most unfortunate fly on the wall view we are given of Henry and his life.
Rooker strikes up a particularly unpleasant manner with his performance in that he does not present Henry as someone who hides his psychopathy exactly, well otherwise than strictly not killing someone. At the same time Rooker in on way wears on his sleeve to the point that someone would go running the opposite direction once they see his face. Rooker instead portrays him as an introverted loner, which works particularly well in creating how Henry goes about his life. There's nothing clearly wrong with him yet there's nothing clearly right with him either. Of course this is only through a cursory glance and this might change a bit when someone is unfortunate enough to get to know him for a more than just a few seconds. Rooker carries that withdrawn intensity incredibly well in his performance as the violent tendencies becomes a constant with the character. Rooker realizes something especially off-putting through this approach as he shows that Henry does not need to be set of to kill. The ability or potential for him to kill is just a constant in Rooker's portrayal of him. When Henry is going to kill it's merely something that he does which is no way needs to be that of a special occasion.
Many of the scenes of the film have a brutal effectiveness when we merely see Henry go somewhere, and then later see the death later on in gruesome detail. Again there is something so disturbing though about Rooker's method in portrayal as he shows the behavior to be just his natural course of action. There's nothing that needs to go wrong, it is just something he will do. The film eventually does depict some of the murders when Henry's friend Otis (Tom Towles) gets in on the murders as well. Rooker is frightening in these scenes through his uncompromising depiction of Henry's brutality towards his victims. What seems almost most cruel about it is how quick and really meaningless the way Rooker portrays Henry commits them. There's not a second thought about it, it's just what he's going to do and that's a cruel fact about the man. Where Towles shows that Otis is obviously getting a kick out of the murders this is less the case for Rooker's performance. There might be the momentary glimpse of it when Henry comes with something new to do to a victim, but it is almost as if he's been doing it so long it in a way is basically his job which he performs so regularly that it is a routine.
The film never has any moments that depict the past of Henry but he does tells a story about his childhood to Otis's sister Becky (Tracy Arnold). Henry details his childhood where he suffered constant abuse by his prostitute mother. Rooker is outstanding in the scene as he reveals the pain in Henry's past in such a brilliant fashion. What is so remarkable about it is that he does not breakdown exactly in a way that would not make sense for Henry. Rooker is fascinating in the way he shows this in a man who really is without humanity. Rooker is very powerful and moving in his own way as he conveys a hollowness about Henry as speaks the past. There is a real emotion there somewhere as Rooker presents it almost as Henry is looking to where the warmth of his life should have come from with his mother. Rooker though portrays past the deepest hate in Henry instead though as he remembers his mother as he suggests in part the creation of the man as he is. The suffering of his past is made palatable through Rooker's portrayal of it though he always keeps something missing that keeps Henry from ever finding any real humanity within himself.
Much like Richard Attenborough's portrayal of John Reginald Christie in 10 Rillington Place, Rooker rightly keeps Henry's nature as a constant. At most we are given the moments where Henry puts Otis in his place when Otis makes incestuous moves towards his sister. Again though Rooker is terrific by presenting it as almost instinctual reaction towards his own abuse by a family member. It does not indicate a change rather it is as natural of a behavior as his killing. What is so unnerving about his Rooker's performance is the way he makes this such a constant in the man, and that the violence is merely a guaranteed reaction from him. By the end of the film he has not changed and the simple truth he never will change. Henry is not arrested by the end of the film, but he likely just will eventually be after committing more murders in the same way he was going at the beginning of the film. The strength of his performance seems almost like a relatively simple one which is to just genuine be the working class murderer that Henry is. It's an absolutely chilling performance by making the behavior of the man feel so honest.