Saturday 3 October 2020

Movie Review: The Glass Castle (2017)

A drama about family ties, The Glass Castle explores the long shadows cast by a difficult upbringing.

In 1989, Jeannette Walls (Brie Larson) is a New York City newspaper gossip columnist engaged to financial advisor David (Max Greenfield), and trying to distance herself from an unconventional past. Her parents are squatting in an apartment building, and as she works up the courage to let them know she is marrying David, her story is revealed in flashbacks.

Jeannette's father Rex (Woody Harrelson) and mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) are raising four children in poverty, instability, and without formal schooling. The family is always on the move and barely one step ahead of the bill collectors. Rex is an alcoholic and cannot hold a job; he is also a big dreamer and waxes eloquent about grand plans to build an innovative glass castle for his family. He has a close and trusting relationship with Jeannette, the most astute and observant of the kids.

Rose Mary is an amateur painter and mostly stands by Rex, eventually convincing him to relocate the family back to Welch, West Virginia and settle in a ramshackle house near his mother Erma (Robin Bartlett). With the kids always near starvation and Erma's abusive personality adding further strain, Jeannette and her siblings plot a new independent path to break free from their parents.

Based on a true story adapted from Jeannette Walls' autobiographical book, The Glass Castle is complex drama carrying echoes of The Mosquito Coast and Captain Fantastic. While fathers refusing to abide by the norms of society are a stock cinematic topic, director Destin Daniel Cretton, who also co-wrote the script, overcomes familiarity with a beguiling story of familial love colliding with child maltreatment. 

At the centre of the story is Rex as the wayward father figure still influencing every aspect of Jeannette's life. His anti-authoritarian behaviour combined with natural (if wasted) charm, alcohol abuse and worrying disregard for the necessities of life create a dangerous edge. But in the flashback scenes, Cretton balances Rex with one good deed compensating for every despicable act. His failures as a traditional father are accompanied by limitless imagination, unconditional love, lessons from the school of life and encouragement to pursue dreams. His mother Erma's behaviour offers hints as to why Rex is the way he is, but ultimately Jeannette rightfully and righteously parks her resentment at her father's doorstep.

As an adult she inherently knows Rex would approve of neither her marrying a dull financial analyst nor pursuing a career as a gossip columnist. Yet he is unable to modify his boorish behaviour and embarrasses her at every opportunity. Their father-daughter bond is close to failure, but Cretton excels in several moments when the child Jeannette is the only person who can influence Rex. From convincing him to join the trek to Welch to imploring him to stop drinking, her voice resonates with him like no other.

Brie Larson is mostly dour in a thankless role full of brooding, and despite the childhood scars Jeannette steers towards snug rather than provocative resolutions. In contrast Woody Harrelson is the stand out performer and the driving energy behind the film. With a mischievous smile and a story for every occasion, he rounds Rex into a father who can be simultaneously loved and despised. 

The Glass Castle is an unattainable dream spun by a deeply flawed free spirit, and it rises to reflect his personality, cracks and all.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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