While walking out of my screening of “The Glass Castle” I immediately pulled out my phone and began perusing opinions on a certain red vegetable movie review aggregate (or fruit depending on your culinary or botanical lean). I had avoided reading reviews but knew reactions were all over the spectrum. Sure enough some have heralded it as “one of the best films of the year” while others have called it “unpleasant”, “lumbering”, “tiresome”, and so on.
So where do I land on “The Glass Castle”, a film based on Jeannette Walls’ best-selling memoir about her nomadic childhood and the family dysfunction she endured. I never found it lumbering, tiresome, or even unpleasant outside of when it was meant to be. At the same time its inconsistencies and messiness keeps me from embracing it as one of the year’s best.
The movie is co-written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton whose previous film was the intimate and tightly-made “Short Term 12”. “The Glass Castle” is much more wide-open in its attempt at covering a lot of ground. It hops back-and-forth in time stopping at significant points in Walls’ childhood and mixing them in with her story as a young adult out on her own.
Brie Larson plays the twenty-something Jeannette living in 1989 New York City. Her determined quest for independence took her away from her harsh family situation and she now writes for a newspaper and has a fiancé (Max Greenfield). But despite her new life, she can’t completely escape the scars from her past, and the internal connection to her family inspires a longing for the idyllic life she dreamed of as a child.
Woody Harrelson plays her father Rex, and through every time hop we see the same complex and deeply flawed man. Harrelson is given the bigger, louder role and his performance is spot-on. But it’s the movie’s depiction of Rex that’s problematic. There’s an effort to sell him as both a charming free spirit and a despicable father. The problem is most attempts at a positive reflection simply don’t work. In fact many of the tender moments are found in scenes where Rex is feeding his children’s imagination in order to hide their poverty and/or lawbreaking – situations he is responsible for.
To go further, the negative reflections of Rex are profoundly more prevalent and overpowering. I found it difficult to see him as anything other than a violent, abusive alcoholic and a generally repugnant human being. Naomi Watts plays Jeanette’s mother Rose Mary, and she just seems along for the ride. She does nothing to curb Rex’s behavior and at times is just as abusive and negligent as her husband. There are moments where Cretton creates some genuine sympathy for these two characters, but I found myself too turned off by their actions to be sympathetic. They are appalling individuals.
Here’s the thing, I’m fine with the movie presenting them this way especially if it’s key to the story being told. But the ending undercuts the rest of the film, and it asks too much of the audience. I won’t spoil anything, but it’s here that the film’s earlier attempts at creating a compassionate side of Rex simply don’t hold weight. If more time had been given to his complexity over his repugnance it could have worked. Instead we have an element of the story that feels short-changed and a final act that needed much more attention to be effective.
There is also a general problem with tone. At times it’s wildly inconsistent. Make no mistake, there are some very disturbing and effective scenes that deal with abuse. But there are also these jolts of humor, mostly involving the Rex character, that are hard to figure out. It works when portraying him as an eccentric, but not so much when the humor crosses over into the abusive scenes. At my screening I’m not sure the audience knew when to laugh. There were several instances where some people were laughing and others groaning in disgust all during the same scene.
“The Glass Castle” is a tough experience to define. It’s depiction of the dark side of Janet Walls’ painful childhood is clear-eyed, visceral and hard to watch. But it badly undersells a significant part of this profoundly penetrating true story. Larson and Harrelson are excellent and the movie’s boldness in tackling the subject matter is commendable. Despite the tonal shifts I was onboard for most of the way. But reconciling the bulk of the film with the tidy ending is something I still haven’t been able to do. I can’t help but believe the book offers up a better, more emotionally satisfying balance.
VERDICT – 2.5 STARS