A film review by Craig J. Koban August 21, 2017


2017, PG-13, 127 mins.


Brie Larson as Jeannette Walls  /  Naomi Watts as Rose Mary Walls  /  Woody Harrelson as Rex Walls  /  Max Greenfield as David  /  Ella Anderson as Jeannette Walls (Age 10)  /  Sarah Snook as Lori Walls  /  Olivia Kate Rice as Lori Walls (Age 7)  /  Dominic Bogart as Robbie  /  Shree Crooks as Maureen Walls (Age 7)  /  Charlie Shotwell as Brian Walls (Age 7)  /  Sadie Sink as Lori Walls (Age 12)  /  Iain Armitage as Brian Walls (Age 5)  /  Brigette Lundy-Paine as Maureen Walls

Directed by Destin Cretton  /  Written by Cretton and Andrew Lanham, based on the memoir by Jeannette Walls

THE GLASS CASTLE is a new fact based drama adapted from the 2005 memoir of the same name written by Jeannette Wall, which chronicled her rather unconventional and troubling childhood.  Directed by Destin Cretton (whom made a critical splash a few years back with his searing SHORT TERM 12), the film contains individual moments as powerfully raw and authentic as any that I've seen in a film this year, not to mention that its key performances are admirably moving and richly textured.  

It's a shame, though, that THE GLASS CASTLE's screenplay suffers from a rather problematic handling not only of its underlining narrative, but also in its dubiously misguided attempts at making one toxically dislikeable character into a deeply sympathetic one.  The film, I think, yearns deep down to be much darker than its otherwise sugar-coated, feel-good facade lets on, which creates a glaring and puzzling disconnect for viewers.   

The film's script is told with the somewhat overused narrative convention of multiple flashbacks to the past followed by flashfowards to the present and then back to the past to help cement the totality of Jeannette's upbringing under her parents (with the present being 1989).  In adulthood Jeannette found success as a writer for a New York magazine and was engaged to a well off financial advisor, which was a million relative miles removed from the type of bohemian existence she grew up in.  Even though Cretton finds nifty and inventive ways of juxtaposing scenes from Jeannette's past with her present by employing some artfully rendered transition segues, this nevertheless leads to THE GLASS CASTLE feeling more like a series of vignettes - some strong, some weak - that climaxes in a third act that nearly undoes everything that transpired before it.  Jeannette's real-life story, no doubt, is one of Herculean resilience, self actualization, and ultimately forgiveness, but the manner that it all concludes on a level of phony and artificially rendered sentimentality hardly feels like the stuff of reality; if only life were so simple.


THE GLASS CASTLE introduces us to Jeannette in the late 1980s (played by Brie Larson, re-teaming with Cretton after SHORT TERM 12), but then thrusts viewers back roughly 25 years earlier to witness her as a child growing up (Chandler Head and Ella Anderson respectively).  We also meet her siblings as well as well as her two seemingly well meaning, but ultimately unfit for parenthood mother and father, Rex (Woody Harrelson) and Rose (Naomi Watts), who frustratingly uproot the whole family time after time from one ramshackled house to another in a desperate effort to avoid bill collectors.  Rex is unable to secure bountiful and long lasting employment mostly because of his alcoholism, but also because he's the type of tunnel visioned and short sighted creep that feels that his way is the only way.  Rex certainly appears to love his family, but his frequent intoxication makes him violently belligerent and borderline unbearable to deal with.  The ongoing indignities that he puts his family through are, at times, excruciating to bare, but Jeannette - via a powerful bound with her sisters and brother - tries to persevere in hopes of one day ridding herself of this man once and for all once she hits adulthood. 

Through headstrong willpower and unthinkable levels of tolerance and patience, Jeannette does manage to escape her father's unsafe and hostile home life, making it through college and eventually to The Big Apple, where she becomes a journalist and lives a relatively posh and extravagant lifestyle with her affluent fiancé (Max Greenfield).  Fate, alas, rears its ugly head when the taxi Jeannette is riding one day comes in contact with what appears to be her aging parents, both of whom are rummaging around nearby garbage cans.  Discovering that Rex and Ross are penniless and living a squater's existence in a rundown and abandoned apartment building, Jeannette soon realizes that she will once again have to confront the very people that made her upbringing so painful at times to endure. 

THE GLASS CASTLE, to its worthy credit, features an embarrassment of performances riches, with the ensemble cast as a whole finding hidden layers and depth to their respective characters that frankly are not always found in the screenplay.  Larson acclimatizes herself with characteristic poise and conviction as her conflicted, confused, and vulnerable adult Jeannette who's deeply unsure if she wants to readmit her parents back into her life.  Despite having the Oscar winner in the film, the real acting standout is young Ella Anderson, who has the toughest challenge of any performer here in portraying Jeannette at her most inquisitive, tender, and emotionally fragile period, during which time she harbors paradoxical feelings of admiration, fear and hatred for her father.  THE GLASS CASTLE rarely hits false emotional beats when Anderson occupies key scenes; she's note perfect as this melancholic soul.   

THE GLASS CASTLE has Brie Larson's face front and center on its poster, but make no mistake about it, this is Woody Harrelson's film through and through, and he arguably gives one of the finest performances of his career as Rex, a man of sinful indiscretions and inner demons.  He sometimes has a rogue like charm, but more often than not has a predilection towards rampant hostility and drunken violence.  One of the strangest aspects of THE GLASS CASTLE is that Harrelson seems to interpret this character far more differently - and compellingly - than the film's wonky scripting.  If anything, Harrelson seems to be acknowledging that Rex may indeed be a cunningly intelligent man, but he's also prone to acts of pure spiteful evil against those he claims to love and protect.  The actor is in routinely mesmerizing form here.   

I guess the fundamental creative misstep that Cretton makes is in the film's awkward and mechanical attempts at making viewers oddly identify with this enormously destructive and dangerous lout.  Rex is, when it boils right down to it, a vindictive and careless SOB that, for instance, nearly drowns a young Jeannette at a local swimming pool in hopes of teaching her how to swim through the fear of death.  Other times, he lets his lust for alcohol get in the way of providing the basic necessities of living for his family, like food and medical care.  There are individual moments, to be fair, that do paint Rex as a man of loving devotion and compassion, but they are few and far between the sections of the film when he's shown as a deeply disturbed and self-servingly corrupt man that puts his family's well being in jeopardy.   THE GLASS CASTLE takes great pains to make us see this man as a misunderstood working class stiff that's as fallible as anyone of us, but that treatment never once feels credible or earned.  Equally head scratching is how Watt's wife - who too has her own share of issues - still manages to stand by this loser through thick and thin; the screenplay never once plausibly gives us a rationale in this respect. 

Worse yet, THE GLASS CASTLE builds towards a laughably cockamamie third act that hurriedly concocts an enthralling and tearful sense of hopeful closure to Jeannette's tortuous relationship with Rex.  Yet, the quick manner that the final 20 minutes or so in the film works overtime to sway our overall opinion of Rex is startlingly miscued.  There are noble minded and worthy themes of personal redemption and understanding that permeates Jeannette's life - which undoubtedly her real life counterpart must have went through - but this film version is so sanitized, so rushed, and so dutifully in spin doctoring what should have been a long process into a sense of emotional closure that happens relatively overnight that it comes off as unintentionally cringe worthy.  This is the ultimate example of a bright and hopeful Hollywoodized sheen masking what should have been an infinitely more depressing, complex and difficult journey for a main character.   

THE GLASS CASTLE contains textured, confident and lived in performances and, at times, achieves a level of disquieting family heartache that makes it oftentimes painful to watch.  There's an unquestionable dramatic veracity to Cretton's film that's mournfully undone by some amateurish writing that aims too aggressively towards cheap sentimental payoffs.  By the time the film reached its forced final scene I felt somewhat cheated by the whole endeavor, mostly because there's a remarkable film buried deep beneath the contrived handling of Jeannette's story.  Much like last year's appallingly overrated CAPTAIN FANTASTIC - another film that was obsessed with making us like a father figure that belonged more in a straight jacket than in the arms of his family members - THE GLASS CASTLE has legitimate things to say about reckless child endangerment, but doesn't have the nerve to seriously tackle them.  It favors easily digestible feel-good schmaltz over bitter tasting sobering truth.  When it boils down to it, Rex doesn't deserve the level of peculiar hero worship this film paints him in, which ultimately makes THE GLASS CASTLE one of the finest acted, but most insufferable conceived dramas of 2017.  Much like Rex, this film is a real puzzling contradiction.   

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