Recommended viewing even though the third act falls short.
by Steve Pulaski
The Glass Castle instantly reminds the alert moviegoer of last year's Oscar-nominated Captain Fantastic, which focused on the same kind of rootless family dynamic portrayed in this film. Adapted from Jeannette Walls' best-selling memoir of the same name, The Glass Castle brings to life a harrowing, abusive situation for four young children as they navigate the backwoods of West Virginia with their wayward parents who treat them more like belongings than actual human beings.
Jeannette is played by Ella Anderson as a young girl and grows up to be portrayed by Brie Larson, who exists as Jeannette in the present. Upon leaving her family, she resides in New York with her fiancee David (Max Greenfield) and works as a gossip columnist. Spliced into the moments showing her still largely restless existence in the Big Apple are flashbacks from her childhood, where her only confidants were her siblings - Lori (Sarah Snook), Brian (Iain Armitage), and Maureen (Shree Crooks) - and her constants were a lack of food, heating, and air-conditioning.
Her parents, Rex (Woody Harrelson) and Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), are what you might call "hippies." They spend their lives traversing the grassy plains of America, setting up shop either out in the fields or in ramshackle homes that usually only suite them for a few days or weeks. We see a brief overview of their tumultuous life until they decide to plant their feet firmly in the town of Welch in an ugly, dilapidated home. Life is difficult by having to go three days without eating anything besides sugar mixed with butter but made even worse when Rex begins drinking heavily, resulting in abuse and worsening neglect. Rose Mary doesn't seem to care too much either; she's so consumed by her hobby, painting landscapes and "abstract expressionism." "Here's some realism for you," Rex screams at her as he destroys her painting. The two are shown making love and giggling just a few moments later.
Rex and Rose Mary are the definition of awful human-beings, at least that's how the movie makes it seem. We see a young Jeannette make a pact with her siblings to escape from them as soon as they gather enough money and enough funds. The only one who stays behind is Maureen, who wears her own scars from being subjected to more turmoil than anyone should experience in their entire life. In the present, Jeannette is trying to find a way to tell her parents that she intends on marrying David, but Rex's drunken behavior and Rose Mary's obliviousness to the peril in which he constantly puts his children makes it tougher.
For about 100 minutes, we see just how bad Rex and Rose Mary are. Even when they're good, they're far from great. Sporadic moments of well-meaning behavior come in the form of Rex telling Jeannette her Christmas present is picking a star out of the sky and claiming it as her's. Another strong moment is after Rex tears off the bandages after Jeannette suffers a bad burn results in a touching moment of throwing caution to the wind and "facing your demon." But these moments are all far out of memory the second Rex hits the bottle, at one point dangling Rose Mary out of a window before the children, and not stopping short of stealing money and condoning molestation.
This is why I find it marginally contemptible that screenwriters Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) and Andrew Lanham decide to conclude the film by painting Rex and Rose Mary as troubled but sympathetic individuals. It's a shameless cop-out that dates back to the false notion that we need to love members of our family even if they might be abusive, manipulative, cowardly, or worse, child molesters. The truth is we do not, we are free to hate those in our family that deserve it, and for Cretton and Lanham to double-back on their premise by allowing The Glass Castle to conclude the way it does is, quite frankly, disappointing and regressive. I don't care how emotional a bust-shot of Brie Larson's face tearing up made me; it comes during a scene where they make a toast to Rex.
This padded out, problematic form of denial is thankfully elevated by how strong The Glass Castle is for most of its runtime, depicting this level of helplessness as one with ostensibly no real solution or end. The film also benefits from an extremely talented cast. I make no qualms about saying this might indeed be Woody Harrelson's best performance, or at least one that's on par with his amazing portrayal of Hustler Magazine's Larry Flynt. He's authoritative and frightening, always one-upping his most recent disgusting episode with another, and has that quivery twang in his voice that practically arrests you.
Brie Larson is also terrific as a woman desperately trying to get her life back on track despite the destructive forces of her parents continuing to pry their way back in, going as far as to moving to New York after her to squat in an abandoned building. But again, these terrible people are worthy of our forgiveness, much less that of their own children's? I think even independent Christian movies might make an exception based on circumstance.
The Glass Castle's structure is also competent; its narrative flexibility and ping-ponging from past to present isn't as jarring as it has been in the past. The film takes a mostly episodic narrative, one comprised of memorable moments, frequent climaxes, and a lot of well-paced, well-communicated shifts in time. If the film hadn't been this well-made prior to such a bogus third act, I would definitely be writing a different review. I recommend the film because, in this instance, the pros outweigh the cons, and what we have here is a heartbreaking but very well-acted look at abuse and what living off the land means for those who didn't choose such a difficult life. Captain Fantastic focused on Viggo Mortensen, the father character of the film; The Glass Castle is about the children, or in this case, the victims.
Steve's Grade: B