Friday, August 11, 2017

The Glass Castle: A shattering family dynamic

The Glass Castle (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, and generously, for dramatic intensity, family dysfunction, children in peril, and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

And I thought Detroit was hard to watch.

(It is. So’s this one.)

As Friedrich Nietzsche observed, That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.

Rex (Woody Harrelson, center), ever the ludicrous idealist, attempts to put a positive
spin on the dilapicated shack that his family is about to call hom; everybody else — from
left, Lori (Sadie Sink), Brian (Charlie Shotwell), Jeannette (Ella Anderson), Rose Mary
(Naomi Watts) and Maureen (Eden Grace Redfield) — is justifiably appalled.
Jeannette Walls must be pretty damn strong.

Walls’ riveting — and frequently heartbreaking — 2005 account of a childhood spent with nomadic and unstable parents remained a fixture on the New York Times Best Seller list for an astonishing 261 weeks. The book is a deeply personal memoir told with grace, perceptive intelligence and unexpected wit; it leaves readers not only with great respect for Walls — and her three siblings — as survivors, but also emphasizes the spiritual importance of closure and forgiveness.

Most readers undoubtedly finished the final pages with awe, thinking, You’re a better, nobler soul than I, Ms. Walls.

Her book has been transformed into an equally compelling film by up-and-coming director Destin Daniel Cretton, who with co-scripter Andrew Lanham has distilled the crucial essence and vitality of Walls’ book, while miraculously finding the heart of a saga that feels unrelentingly tragic. Granted, he had help: not only from his three primary stars, but also from an impressively well-selected collection of young actors.

Everybody turns in a masterful, thoroughly persuasive performance. Which, of course, makes the film that much harder to watch.

Cretton begins his film in 1989. Jeannette (Brie Larson) is polished, poised and refined: every inch a late twentysomething Manhattan journalist, regaling friends and professional acquaintances with often hilarious tales of her encounters while penning the “Intelligencer” column for New York magazine. She’s engaged to marry David (Max Greenfield), an ambitious financial advisor on the fast track to Big Apple aristocracy.

But we sense something. Jeannette is too elegant: less a human being and more a porcelain doll. Larson’s features are frozen, and she moves with a stiffness that suggests fragility, and the possibility that she might shatter at any moment.

A chance encounter during a late-night taxi ride home calls up memories, at which point Cretton establishes the format for his narrative: Jeannette’s saga will bounce back and forth, from present to past, until the two intersect.

Young Jeannette (now Chandler Head) is the middle child in the late 1960s, nestled between older sister Lori (Olivia Kate Rice) and younger brother Brian (Iain Armitage). They trail in the wake of parents Rex (Woody Harrelson) and Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), two of the most self-centered, irresponsible people in the known universe.

They’re fiery, emotionally unrestrained free spirits with an ingrained contempt for authority and institutions, whether employers or public schools or hospitals: nomadic at a time when “living off the grid” wasn’t yet a lifestyle.

Absolutely the last two people who should bear and attempt to raise children. And yet Rose Mary is pregnant with No. 4: Maureen.

Rex is a mean drunk, prone to explosions of temper and acts of staggering emotional cruelty. Rose Mary, a classic enabler, fancies herself a bohemian painter and justifies neglect on the basis of being in “artistic moments.”

Life with these two is an hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly onslaught of child abuse; attempting to describe it as “benign” is being much too kind. Some patrons walked out off Wednesday evening’s preview screening, and I couldn’t fault them; Cretton’s approach may not be exploitative — he doesn’t rub our noses in it — but the mere depiction of such events is shattering.

And yet ...

Harrelson, a black-eyed nightmare when Rex is drunk, makes him devilishly charismatic at other times: a self-taught engineer/scientist with an impressive facility for stray facts, who enchants his children, captures their imagination and exhorts them to embrace life fearlessly.

Watts, in turn, makes Rose Mary a tragic figure: a self-proclaimed “excitement addict” forever trapped in orbit around Rex’s dark star.

The question — the crucial question, for which Cretton demands an answer — is whether we can look beyond the unrelenting parental cruelty, to view Rose Mary as merely pathetic, and Rex as a guy unable to rise above his own inner demons, who expresses love the best way he can, given his own loveless upbringing.

(And boy, if you think Jeannette and her siblings have things tough — and, no question, they do — wait’ll you meet Rex’s mother.)

I suspect most viewers will find understanding impossible, let alone forgiveness. And yet there’s no denying the moments of magic between Harrelson and, most particularly, Anderson, as the teenage Jeannette. She has grown up at the right time, and at the right age, to be the most enchanted by her father’s wild flights of fancy: most particularly the literal “glass castle” — solar-powered, no less — that he has long promised to build, in order to house his family in a luxury they’ve never known.

Against all expectation, Cretton draws moments of mutual devotion, between Harrelson and Anderson, on par with the touching dynamic Chris Evans shared with young Mckenna Grace, earlier this year in Gifted.

But can such sweet intimacy compensate for the horrors of life with Rex, all the rest of the time?

Likely not.

When all four children and even Rose Mary finally rebel over a peripatetic life of hovels, filthy campgrounds, unpaid landlords, child welfare investigators and condescending (or, worse yet, pitying) glances, Rex finally moves them back to his home town of Welch, West Virginia, a declining mining community that nonetheless offers undreamt-of stability.

Despite the fact that they move into a squalid, ramshackle house with neither electricity nor running water.

Back in the present, we’re astonished — after the first lengthy flashback — to discover that all three of Jeannette’s siblings also have survived, even thrived, and live in close proximity to each other. Lori (Sarah Snook), ever the realist, has matured into a wise woman who clearly knows Jeannette better than she knows herself. Brian (Josh Caras) is a policeman.

We’re not so sure about Maureen (Brigette Lundy-Paine), who has the scattered bearing of a lost soul: perhaps one short step from straying off the path, and never finding her way back. But the bond between these four is palpable, and all four actors — Larson, Snook, Caras and Lundy-Paine — share the easy, reflexive dynamic that bespeaks ferocious sibling loyalty.

We bleed for Greenfield’s David, genuinely devoted to Jeannette — offering comfort and constancy — and yet not quite able to navigate his way to her soul. He knows this; Greenfield’s often wary gaze conveys the anxiety of a guy who worries that he’ll never fully satisfy the “mountain goat” — Rex’s pet name for his middle daughter — who has captured his heart.

The film’s near-unrelenting melancholy tone is enhanced by songwriter/composer Joel P. West, whose evocative underscore is complemented by well-placed songs such as Waylon Jennings’ “My World,” Kitty Wells’ “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and Cole Porter’s “Don’t Fence Me In.”

Harrelson and Watts have the showy roles, conveying their characters’ unrestrained eccentricities and breathtaking selfishness with a force likely to induce nightmares for weeks to come. (I sure didn’t sleep well, for several nights, thinking about this film.)

Larson has the tougher, far subtler assignment. Jeannette is the individual who changes: not just once, but twice. It’s easy to understand the shift when Anderson, as the adolescent Jeannette, finally — reluctantly — allows worshipful devotion to crumble away, after too much disappointment and bad behavior on Rex’s part: a transition that the young actress conveys with heartbreaking credibility.

The adult Jeannette’s conversion is far subtler, much more intriguing, and perhaps a tougher sell. It’s not hard to understand why she has changed so much — too much — in order to distance herself from her parents, in every conceivable way. Getting us to accept her eventual decision to swing back a bit — to more comfortably center herself — requires truly delicate thespic skills, and Larson pulls it off.

Whether Cretton and Lanham succeed in their sidebar goal is another matter. Can Rex and Rose Mary, ultimately, be forgiven for their behavior? Should they be? That’s a tough sell, after spending two full hours watching four children endure so much.

All of which makes The Glass Castle a film to be admired — much like Walls’ book — but probably not one to enjoy.

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