The Glass Castle (2017)
Dir. Destin Daniel Cretton; Woody Harrelson, Brie Larson, Naomi Watts
[2.5 out of 4 stars]
When little Jeannette Walls (Chandler Head) tells her mother she’s hungry, her mother sighs, turns from the canvas in front of her, and asks, “Would you rather I spend time making you lunch that’s going to be gone in an hour or finish my painting, which will last forever?” So, Jeannette starts boiling some hot dogs, standing on a chair to see over the rim of a large pot. As she leans over her lunch, her tutu catches the flame, and soon she is rolling on the kitchen floor engulfed in flames. When the doctors ask what a 3-year-old was doing cooking over an open flame unsupervised, Jeannette barely looks up from the tray of hospital food in front of her: “We cook for ourselves all the time.”
In The Glass Castle (2017), based on Walls’ autobiographical novel, this incident is only one of many that Jeannette (played as an adult by Brie Larson), and her siblings Lori (played mostly by Sadie Sink), Brian (Charlie Shotwell), and Maureen (Shree Crooks), endure under the observation of their well-meaning but reckless and neglectful parents. Rex (Woody Harrelson) is the head of the household and the reason his family must so often “skedaddle”- his word for checking out of the hospital without paying or driving off in the middle of the night to escape bill collectors. He is charismatic and smart and teaches his children how to live without fear. When the four kids are young, life is an adventure; they sleep in the desert under the stars or in abandoned houses, don’t have to go to school, and help Rex sketch out plans for The Glass Castle, a home he intends to build entirely out of glass. Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), their mother, paints constantly, and her method of homeschooling consists of giving her children books to read. As the kids grow up, however, they begin to see the flaws in their parents’ selfish method of child-rearing, especially as Rex’s drinking increases. We watch them mature, struggle to deal with their parents’ limitations, and vow together to escape this way of life.
It’s an intrinsically human movie, both in its focus on family and human emotions, and in its cinematography. Nearly every shot includes at least one person in it, often a close-up: Rose Mary stuffing canvases under her arm and running to the car as the family skedaddles; four small redheads in a row in the backseat, looking out the car window and wondering where they’re going; a closeup of Rex’s face as he stitches up a nasty cut on his shoulder after a night out drinking. We are shoved, immediately and intimately, into this family, forced into the middle of their destructive dynamic. Family conflict is right in our face, compelling us to see and respond to it.
At some points, this works better than others. A particularly emotional scenes comes from Larson, whom I wish could have been in much more of the film than she was. The scene takes place when she is an adult, a successful journalist living in New York City and engaged to financial advisor David (Max Greenfield), a man her parents find lacking in adventure. The couple are having dinner with Rex and Rose Mary, who are squatting in an abandoned building on the Lower East Side. Rex is drunk, and encouraging David to follow suit, and rants about how big banks are profiting off of lower-class people, a tirade he expresses repeatedly. To display his masculinity, Rex challenges David to an arm wrestling match, which he eventually accepts. As the two battle, and Rex seems poised to win, he chuckles to Jeannette and says of David, “See, what’d I tell you? No spark!” Larson’s eyes cut from her fiancé to her father, and her face hardens, her jaw sets, her eyes flash. Suddenly she slams her fists onto the table and joins in screaming with the rest of her family. “Come on David! Kick his ass! Let’s go!” Her hair falls from its neat updo, and her face contorts so that it almost doesn’t look like her own. Behind her eyes, we see years of exasperation and grief and pent-up rage towards her father, whom she loves and also despises.
At other times, this close-up style of filmmaking makes the viewer feel lost. Shots cut from character to character, each child played by multiple actors, and jump throughout space and time to knit together Jeannette’s life. The focus sometimes becomes unclear- is this Jeannette’s story or Rex’s? While their relationship is important, the novel is entirely Jeannette’s story and her own approach to her life. The film shifts this focus just enough that it often seems to be Rex’s story; only when Larson is on screen is she able to command the place that she deserves in her own life. If the director wanted to take the emphasis off of Jeannette, he should have concentrated on the children. The four little redheads learn to look out for themselves and for each other since their parents don’t, and their relationship throughout the second half of the film becomes something worth watching.
Even more frustrating is the fact that Harrelson’s performance does not deserve to be the driving force of the film as Larson’s does. While Rex is undoubtedly a difficult man to portray, it is clear that Harrelson hadn’t quite settled into the role; he plays Rex rather than being him. At times, his accent, chuckle, or wild whoops come off as awkward, making it seem as if Harrelson is portraying a caricature rather than an actual man. His chuckles and blasé comments during the arm wrestling scene are not believable, and his wide smile sometimes seems like a mask. While his performance is more powerful in the quiet scenes, when he reveals Rex’s vulnerability and pain in a facial expression or gaze, it is not as commanding as Larson’s.
At times, watching the adventures of this unorthodox family and their complicated emotional interactions is heartwarming and poignant. Yet, these attempts sometimes end up cliché in the screenplay, and, without the singular focus on Jeannette that the novel allows, the road to the conclusion seems somewhat messy. Nevertheless, The Glass Castle somehow manages to become universally relatable as it illustrates the complicated and long-lasting impacts our families have on us.