The Glass Castle
Edwin Arnaudin: Jeannette Walls’ 2005 memoir The Glass Castle was on the New York Times Best Seller List for a total of 261 weeks, but it’s yet another popular book that’s a blind spot for me. Have you read it?
Bruce Steele: I haven’t read it, but I’ve seen a lot of online comments from disappointed fans of the book. As a newbie, I was expecting a coming-of-age story akin to Captain Fantastic, and I felt more like I was watching Room. Did you find part of the movie hard to watch?
Edwin: Many parts, actually. Jeanette’s alcoholic father Rex (Woody Harrelson) and somewhat harebrained artist mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) are a difficult parental combo. They’re the bizarro Captain Fantastic, making life miserable for their four kids instead of enhancing it through a guided pursuit of independent thought.
Bruce: Far from it. It seemed like director Destin Daniel Cretton, who adapted the screenplay with Andrew Lanham (The Shack), thought casting Harrelson was sufficient to make Rex complex, but he’s not. He’s the kind of abusive, delusional dreamer we’ve all met and learned to avoid. Even Harrelson, whom I greatly admire, can’t find any way to make him interesting or sympathetic.
Edwin: Other than some so-so 11th hour exceptions, I agree Rex is pretty one-note in the unintentional terrorizing of his family. That said, I found Harrelson mesmerizing in his commitment to the role, more so than his villainous turn in War for the Planet of the Apes. Still, it’s Brie Larson as adult Jeanette whom I think gives the film its emotional complexity. Did her difficult filtering of her past and present move you as well?
Bruce: I wasn’t moved, sorry to say, but I have a low tolerance for both people and movie characters who can’t walk away from abusive situations and people, whatever their psychological ties. I understand Jeannette needs to forgive and redeem her horrible parents for her own peace of mind, but the whole redemption twist in the final 20 minutes left me cold. The movie lost me with that big Citizen Kane breakfast table long shot signaling that Jeannette’s happy life apart from her parents was now, suddenly, to be viewed as unhappy. Didn’t you feel slapped around by the ham-fisted filmmaking?
Edwin: It’s frustrating to watch characters who clearly should know better continue to stay in a bad circumstance. But that’s indicative of real life, and the film’s realism and my sympathy for people who attempt to work through their psychological trials ultimately worked wonders for me. As for the filmmaking, Cretton is no stylist, but similar to his stunning breakthrough Short Term 12 – featuring my favorite Larson turn – I think he excels at writing downtrodden characters and shepherding honest, relatable performances from his cast.
ruce: They were downtrodden, yes, but for me the movie and its performances lacked grit. I spent a lot of time kind of squinting at the screen, trying to imagine the messy humans beneath the movie-gloss surface. The mother, for example, appears in real-life end-credits footage to be mentally ill, which would explain her attachment to Rex better than Watts’ mild turn as a mousy painter. I imagine Walls’ memoir was much more successful because it was much less filtered.
Edwin: I found the depiction of the Walls’ family “adventures” visually bleak, especially in contrast to Jeanette’s glamorous 1989 Manhattan existence. But I agree with you that Watts’ matriarch could have used some more troubling traits to flesh out the rough family dynamic. She's definitely not right in the head, though she’s grounded enough to cast doubt over why she’d stay by Rex’s side all these years. And it’s easily Watts’ best performance this year, which sadly isn’t saying much.
Bruce: I’m enjoying Watts in Twin Peaks, but she is due for a meaty movie role. The Glass Castle isn’t that for any of its cast. I can see how fans of the memoir would be disappointed at the movie’s inability to translate family members’ no-doubt complicated inner life to the screen. Instead it’s just an unpleasant slog through a lot of abuse, with an unearned upbeat ending. I can’t give it better than a D.
Edwin: It’s a challenging sit and one I’m unlikely to try again for a while (if ever). I prefer the somewhat lighter Short Term 12, but haven’t given it a second look, either. I think both films succeed in their missions and do their part to fill modern cinema's void of deep, dark, truthful drama – and I feel like persevering through them is ultimately rewarding. The Glass Castle gets a B-plus from me and I look forward to Cretton’s and Larson’s next brutally honest collaboration.
Grade: C-plus. Rated PG-13. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark
(Photos by Jake Giles Netter/Lionsgate)