The Glass Castle is the third feature from director Destin Daniel Cretton—better known for the 2013 indie darling Short Term 12. This movie is based on a true story and primarily revolves around Jeanette Walls (Brie Larson), a recently engaged gossip journalist in New York who reminisces about living on the road with her dysfunctional 1960s family after her non-conforming veteran father Rex (Woody Harrelson) comes back into the fold to remind her about how amazing life is. Honestly, I was interested in The Glass Castle because the premise sounded interesting at the time and because I love Brie Larson, especially after seeing her fantastic Oscar winning performance in Room. Based on the mixed critical reception, I thought this movie could at least turn out to be serviceable before truly understanding why Lionsgate pushed the screening that I attended from Wednesday to Thursday night.
The technical aspects of The Glass Castle surprise me the most. Brett Pawlak’s cinematography is vibrant and gorgeous; from the rural dessert landscapes to the urban city streets, this movie for sure looks real—notice how I say looks and not feels. Cretton is also a terrific director who knows how to frame a shot; he’s someone I should’ve already looked out for — except this movie isn’t for him. Nat Sanders of Moonlight fame edits The Glass Castle with such fluency, but it would’ve benefited from a more conventional narrative because one time-frame is usually more interesting than the other; if that’s indeed the case, I’m not surprised about another editor coming in to help finish making the movie. As someone at my screening pointed out, Joel P West composes the score in a way that feels not only derivative but also too upbeat for its serious subject matter. How is this movie not his first collaboration with Cretton?
After playing a pointless cardboard cutout in this year’s Kong: Skull Island, I can safely say that Brie Larson officially has Jennifer Lawrence syndrome. She works well with the little material given but she shouldn’t receive an Oscar nomination for playing herself while sporting a barely convincing southern accent. The movie also spends more time on Jeannette than the other children which bugged me because the only reason Larson receives that kind of attention on-screen is for the sake of making her the lead actress when awards season rolls around; it makes this already uninteresting older female character even less interesting and her scenes are usually a chore to sit through because even though she’s front and center during the New York-centric moments, her role still feels too major in retrospect.
Woody Harrelson is great as usual but his best performance of the year is still The Colonel from War for the Planet of the Apes; he basically just plays a crazier version of Marty Hart from True Detective Season 1. Furthermore, the movie never once made me care about how Rex Walls raised his children and instead paints him as an insecure asshole who constantly recites half-assed motivational speeches about living life to the fullest. He’s also the same character who threw his daughter Jeannette in the deep end of a public pool claiming that “she’s swimming” because she barely escaped death by drowning. While Rex never once lays a hand on his children, that would’ve at least made his character more complex since he is after all an unstable alcoholic. In fact, the movie never shows him having PTSD even though it claims that he’s a retired US fighter pilot and an optimistic thrill seeker. Thankfully, Rex punches Jeannette’s accountant fiancé David (Max Greenfield) right in the face since the filmmakers lazily show this character as the living, breathing definition of a walking cliché who is so static that I can’t invest in him at all.
Various supporting characters are also forgettable. Naomi Watts plays Jeannette’s mother Rose Mary; her character is an artist and she’s often uneasy about her husband’s crazy antics. Anyone going in expecting a memorable performance from Watts will surely leave the theater disappointed. The scenes regarding her artistic background are interesting but they’re wasted potential compared to the rest of her bland personality traits. The two sets of child actors from Jeanette’s past are my favorite because their characters are not only well acted but also well utilized. In fact, these children of two generations are actually characters and not plot devices. Outside of Ian Armitage (Ziggy Chapman from Big Little Lies), I did not recognize any of these actors, but hope that their filmography at least continues to grow.
If I had to describe the screenplay of The Glass Castle, then I would say that it’s a bigger budget Hallmark with worse writing. For a movie with a concept as simple as this one, numerous scenes that could’ve been either shortened or cut entirely pad out the already lengthy 127-minute runtime. Even more surprising, The Glass Castle doesn’t know what it wants to be and constantly switches between light-hearted period piece and painfully serious family drama. I haven’t yet seen Short Term 12, but am unsure if he did indeed write his following feature and I’m right for the most part. Andrew Lanham, one of three screenwriters responsible for the studio-funded Christian movie The Shack, is credited alongside Destin who also wrote that same movie with one other person, and I don’t see quite as much of the latter’s influence in The Glass Castle even though he did direct it as well.
Speaking of which, the movie is incredibly ham-fisted and preachy in regards to presenting its several off-putting themes and messages about nonconforming and living with nature. Rex literally calls Brian “a member of the Gestapo” after hearing the news of his son’s first arrest as a police officer. Other movies have handled similar issues better and with much more nuance. Certain scenes do work on paper but they often drag in length and feel poorly executed on screen. For example, Rex and Rose Mary engage in an altercation regarding personal issues and the ending is so frustratingly awful that it conflicts with the uneven tone the movie is trying to set. I understand if the filmmakers wanted to remain faithful to the historic events, but I’d rather have a well-written adaptation over a mostly authentic retelling. The end credits show actual photos and videos of the Walls family and while the performances look accurate in comparison, the plot details seem so exaggerated that they probably exist for the simple sake of dramatic effect.
The Class Castle is a movie that had so much potential yet somehow still falls flat on its face. To be fair, watching Room right before might’ve made me hate this one just a bit more; then again, The Glass Castle does have some redeeming factors including colorful cinematography, great direction, and memorable child performances. Anyone who thrives off overly sentimental, Oscar baiting garbage should skip this movie and go see Ingrid Goes West instead.