“Sadly, Rex’s Glass Castle is merely symbolic of a fertile imagination, of wonderfully elaborate gestures, but ultimately represents nothing more than unfulfillment and crushing disappointment.”
Take a good glug of Captain Fantastic, add a dash of The Waltons, then sprinkle in something rather unsavoury, to taste. Give it a good old shake now, and what do you have?
The Glass Castle, that’s what.
OK, that’s a bit of a naff sweeping summary, and possibly a little unfair in insinuating a certain degree of unoriginality, but the influences are certainly there to be seen in Destin Daniel Cretton’s entertaining tale based upon a true story of alternative lifestyles and the perils of the bottle.
Rex (Woody Harrelson), is certainly a one-off. A righteous man and a dreamer, he fills his young family’s heads with fantastic tales and with a line of knowledge plucked straight from the University of Life’s main syllabus. Racked by poverty brought about through his (and his wife’s) insistence on living a non-conformist alternative lifestyle, the aforementioned University of Life is pretty much the only educational institution that any of their children are ever likely to attend.
Nevertheless, they are quite a happy troop, living free, and in doing so they all make a stand against a system that so appalls Rex and his wife, Rose Mary (Naomi Watts). That said, from time to time Rex swallows his considerable pride and takes employment where he can find it in order to provide for his family. These are undoubtedly the good times, full of fun, happiness and optimism for the future – a respite from the relentless hardship of self-sufficiency and the soul-sapping grind of poverty. But any such times prove to be unsustainable, relatively short-lived, and always finite.
Rex waxes lyrical about his grand plans to find the perfect plot of land and to then build his family a magnificent Glass Castle upon it, in which they can all live a wonderful life. Such lofty aspirations are all well and good and an easy sales pitch to sell to a young impressionable family, but with the passing of time and with his children becoming young adults, the difference between Rex’s dreams and cold reality are gradually laid bare. Even if the land can be found and the materials somehow acquired, Rex’s ongoing battles with alcohol addiction always seem to render any such plans redundant – a mere pipe dream. Sadly, Rex’s Glass Castle is merely symbolic of a fertile imagination, of wonderfully elaborate gestures, but ultimately represents nothing more than unfulfillment and crushing disappointment.
Amongst Rex and Rose Mary’s children is Jeannette (Brie Larsson), very much the spokesperson amongst the siblings. She has listened for years to her father’s distracting tales of wonder, but has now finally reached breaking point. Sick of the alcoholism, threatening behaviour and constant broken promises, she vows to fly the nest against her father’s wishes. She is not the first to do so, and she will not be the last.
Destin Daniel Cretton’s film, whilst being a very watchable piece, does however have an overriding feeling of being something that we’ve seen before. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and certainly shouldn’t take away from some fine performances. Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of Rex is both captivating and often visceral and raw (in a good way). Naomi Watts is assured in her portrayal of Rex’s loyal wife, Rose Mary, a lady who seems resigned to honour some sort of invisible contract of dutiful servitude to her man and his impossible fantasies, whilst Brie Larsson puts in a strong performance as Jeannette, a girl who is ultimately torn between the innate bonds that she has to her hopelessly idealistic bohemian family, and the life that she ultimately chooses to live beyond these shackles; one that is so completely contrary to her father’s deep-seated beliefs.
If there is fault to be picked in Cretton’s piece, it is the metamorphosis of Harrelson’s character from unorthodox, happy-go-lucky Dad, to alcohol-rinsed threatening monster. This may well have been the case, but this process of character deterioration is unconvincing here, and leaves one presuming that maybe there is in fact some missing segment of this film that ended up on the cutting room floor.
Even with the alcoholism, the occasional violent outbursts and the general downward spiral into despair, it still takes a big old leap for the imagination to consider Rex as being anything other than a bit of a hopeless case, down on his luck, and certainly not the sort of ogre that would ultimately have convinced every one of his poor hard-done-by children that they simply must flee his life-controlling tyranny, at all costs.
All things considered though, The Glass Castle gets far more right than wrong and serves to provide a perfectly watchable and emotionally engaging tale of family bonds and the disabling hold that they can so often have over us.