Blu-ray Review: The Glass Castle

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The Glass Castle, now available on Blu-ray and DVD via Lionsgate, is an adaptation of Jeannette Walls' memoir of the same name. The book (which, full disclosure, I've not read) was apparently well received. The film, however, is an unmitigated disaster—a supremely off-putting viewing experience that fails miserably in its attempts to make sympathetic two characters who are beneath contempt. Unless you're terminally addicted to Brie Larson and must see everything she appears in, consider in advance that The Glass Castle is a shaggy dog story that charts physical and psychological abuse of children (at the hands of parents and grandparents) to absolutely no productive end. Though I would begrudgingly recommend it over the execrable Larson-starring Free Fire (simply because there are admittedly some effective performances in Castle and nothing effective about Free Fire), director Destin Daniel Cretton (who also co-scripted) has come up with very few redeeming elements here.

Also worth mentioning, Larson's top-billed role is essentially a supporting role set within a sort of framing device. The film's narrative switches between the adult Jeannette Walls (Larson) and a preteen version (Ella Anderson), with the latter dominating. Jeanette is one of four children living in squalor with parents Rex (Woody Harrelson) and Rose Mary (Naomi Watts). If you saw the vastly superior Captain Fantastic (2016), you're already familiar with this type of bohemian, free spirit, off-the-grid, anti-establishment, paranoid family dynamic. Rex and Rose Mary are the type of parents who believe the only way to teach your kids to swim is to throw them in the deep end.

That "deep end" reference is literal, by the way, as we see Rex repeatedly toss young Jeannette into a public pool without the faintest bit of instruction as horrified parents and other kids look on. How does director Cretton justify Rex's traumatizing "parenting" methods? When the pool manager questions Rex's actions, Rex accuses him of discriminating against blacks (who are seen as nearly the only other occupants of the pool during the Walls' visit). This kind of "heroic" depiction (not that standing up for minorities' rights isn't heroic, in and of itself) is offered up as a narrative non-sequitur. Rex is a truly despicable, criminal individual whose apparently self-taught "school of life" education (and life philosophy) is never explained. So when he comes out swinging against racial inequality, it's a pathetically manipulative attempt to win audience support for this supposed white savior. It's bunk and it's patently offensive.

Jeanette the adult (she works as some kind of writer, having escaped—physically, if not mentally—the virtual imprisonment of her parents) is a total cipher. Her defining trait is her seeming inability to fully cast her parents out of her life. After we watch horror after horror perpetrated by her "well meaning" parents (including, but certainly not limited to, disfigured burns to her torso acquired after Rose Mary makes Jeannette cook hot dogs unattended as a very young child—wounds that Rex believe would be better off "self-healed" than by doctors), Jeanette still fears Rex.

By the way, her two sisters and especially her sole brother are treated with far less regard in terms of story arc. Yet the overall message of The Glass Castle appears to be the tired "family first" trope. Beneath it all, Rex (who we learn was abused physically by his mother—a woman he defends at all costs even after she begins sexually abusing her grandson) is presented as a man still worthy of love and care. The bogus sentimentality is enough to inspire nausea in any viewer with a functioning internal B.S. detector. The only moments that really register and ring true within The Glass Castle involve the nuanced, believable performance by Ella Anderson. She makes something real out of the tweenaged Jeannette—she deserved a much better movie, too.

Lionsgate's Blu-ray includes several supplemental features: "Memoir to Movie" featurette (26 minutes), "A Conversation with Jeannette Walls" interview with the source memoir author (15 minutes), deleted scenes (ten minutes), "Scoring The Glass Castle" featurette about composer Joel P. West, and "Making of 'Summer Storm' by Joel P. West" featurette (three minutes).

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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