The Glass Castle – Film Review by Frank L.
Directed: Dettin Daniel Cretton
Writers: Destin Daniel Cretton (screenplay by), Andrew Lanham (screenplay by)
Stars: Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts
Director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12) co-wrote the script with Andrew Lanham based on Jeanette Walls’ 2005 memoir of the same title. The memoir spent 261 weeks on the New York Times best seller list. The adult, Jeanette, is played by Brie Larsen (Room). The story is of her upbringing, along with her brother and two sisters, by Rex (Woody Harrelson) their father, who charitably could be described as a dreamer. The ditzy mother, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) was more concerned with her own artistic needs as a painter (sadly with little talent) than her maternal obligations to her children. Rex to put it mildly had a problem with alcohol and another with authority and as a result, notwithstanding that he was bright, found it impossible to hold down a job. He came in turn from another dysfunctional family whose matriarch Erma (Robin Bartlett) is intelligent, authoritarian but twisted. The backdrop is West Virginia and the town of Welch, in particular, a place that has been struggling economically for a very long time.
The film begins at the opposite end of American society where Jeanette, a successful columnist, chicly dressed at an upmarket New York restaurant, is accompanying her smooth talking investment banker boyfriend David (Max Greenfield) at a dinner with a couple of his clients. He tells a straight forward lie about Rex’s skills as an inventor. She, in the taxi ride afterwards, tells him to let her do the lying about her family. In fact, by that time, her parents are down and outs in New York living on the street off garbage. The film then cuts backwards and forwards between Jeanette and her siblings’ grim upbringing and their young adult lives.
In his make believe world Rex imagines building for his family a fantastical glass house. The reality is he is unable to provide rudimentary shelter or feed his family. The children, of course, initially believe his Glass Castle dream but gradually they come to realise it is all a hot air. As their childhood progresses, Rex’s behaviour becomes increasingly reprehensible and the children have to protect themselves from his violent outbursts. No matter what unspeakable act he inflicts on his children Rose Mary always ultimately gives into his diabolical behaviour. Despite everything that he does, she loves him. To be added to the dysfunctional behaviour of Rex and Rose Mary is the more worrying figure of Erma whose part in the proceedings, although not fully elucidated, may well explain some of Rex’s personality flaws. Although the part is small it is revealing..
Cretton has undoubtedly obtained fine performances from Larsen, Harrelson and Watts and indeed from the actors of each of the siblings when they were children. In a commentary on the film Cretton states that he wanted to make the film, because of the manner in which Jeanette Walls has led her life, “less about forgiveness and more about acceptance”. That is an admirable concept. However there will be other children, who have endured alcoholic fuelled upbringings, with all that entails, who will find acceptance of their childhood lot not so easily rationalised. The film and its ultimate tone do not make for easy viewing.