Friday, 27 November 2020

Movie Review: The Glass House (2001)

A suspense drama with gaslighting elements, The Glass House repeatedly threatens to become quite good without ever delivering.

In Los Angeles, 16 year old Ruby Baker (Leelee Sobieski) and her younger brother Rhett are orphaned when a car crash claims their parents. Family lawyer Alvin Begleiter (Bruce Dern) advises Ruby she stands to inherit a large estate once she achieves adulthood. In the meantime he arranges for the children to live with Terry and Erin Glass (Stellan Skarsgård and Diane Lane), former neighbours of the Bakers who have now moved into a swish Malibu villa.

The Bakers act friendly and appear wealthy, but Ruby soon notices creepy behaviour. She and Rhett are assigned a single bedroom, Terry's behaviour towards Ruby borders on lustful, and Erin may be a drug addict. Terry's car leasing business is in financial trouble, and Ruby starts to suspect Terry is more interested in her inheritance than her well-being. She turns to Begleiter and social worker Nancy Ryan (Kathy Baker) for help, but untangling Terry's intentions will be risky.

While woman-in-distress dramas are common, The Glass House adds a twist by applying the threat to a newly-orphaned 16 year old. Not quite an adult but already quite astute, Ruby is still learning to trust her instincts, and in the hands of a doleful Leelee Sobieski she is a complex protagonist defying both victim and hero stereotypes, and the best thing about the film.

Director Daniel Sackheim is more at home in television, and here never quite settles on a tone for Wesley Strick's script. The mood erratically oscillates between routine family adaptation travails, something-is-not-quite-right suspicion, and outright suspense before jumping to violence and carnage in the final act. All the shadings are handled with decent proficiency but the whole rarely gels into an effective package.

Sackheim does deliver some polished visuals. The Glass villa is a modern artwork of - what else - glass, and the scarcity of opaque walls compromises essential hiding places. The coastal highways around Malibu provide the snaky asphalt for plenty of sleek driving misadventures. 

Apart from Ruby, the other characters are routine. Stellan Skarsgård is an effective wolf, but loses his sheep's clothing early. Diane Lane is confined to one of her much less interesting roles as Erin, while Bruce Dern is underused. Rita Wilson, Michael O'Keefe and Chris Noth have small roles. 

The Glass House is never polished enough to fully shine, but it does occasionally glisten.



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