In life, one of the hardest truths one must learn is that there is no clear line between good and evil. It is far too easy to label somebody as “bad” and ignore the good things they do because of all the bad things they have done or vice versa. Perhaps no film better understands this than Destin Daniel Cretton‘s The Glass Castle. Portraying two parental figures as a mess of irresponsibility and a father prone to domestic abuse and alcoholism, the film has been heavily criticized for portraying both sides of Jeannette Walls’ (Brie Larson) parents Rex (Woody Harrelson) and Rose Mary (Naomi Watts). Whether one walks away enjoying The Glass Castle depends entirely upon one’s ability to forgive Rex and Rose Mary for their horrific behavior and remember their positive behavior. It is a difficult task for audiences and one that the film probably should not stake its reception on, but as a display of the reality faced by the children of parents who are riddled with major issues, The Glass Castle is a powerful film in spite of its flaws.
In his directorial debut, Destin Daniel Cretton channeled his own experiences working in a group home to create Short Term 12. One of the best films of 2013 – and perhaps the decade – Short Term 12 is one of those rare films that is emotionally raw, powerful, and impossible to shut off. When it ends, it is hard to not just watch it again, returning to the world of the film and get lost in the characters once more. Compared to his latest work, however, the The Glass Castle take a very different approach. Far more shotgun-style, Short Term 12 focuses on the dysfunction and tragedy of a group of kids and their caretakers while The Glass Castle focuses on the dysfunction and tragedy of a single family.
Born from the land of broken promises and impossible dreams, The Glass Castle uses Jeannette Walls’ real life experiences to become a truly resonant and striking depiction of life in a broken family. At its core, this is a film about a daughter and her father. Loving his daughter unconditionally, the father is a broken man. Prone to fits of anger, promising things he will never deliver, and drinking away every cent in the house, Rex is a man that is incredibly hard to like. Yet, he loves Jeannette and her siblings. He fills their heads with fantasies and dreams to hide the fact that he is a bum. He makes their poverty feel like an adventure. It may be deceitful, but it shows some measure of him trying his best. However, he is undeniably an alcoholic. He is moody and abusive towards Rose Mary. Often times, he takes his anger out on his children, uses them to make money, and tries to keep them from leaving the family. As much as he can be a kind and genuinely nice father, he can equally be a cruel, wicked, and abusive father.
Yet, as Jeannette must learn, there are often two sides to the coin, which is where many will begin to groan and resent the film. For the first two acts, we are entirely sympathetic to Jeannette. Her parents are an embarrassment and a blight on her otherwise successful life as a gossip columnist. Sure, Rex has his positive traits, but on the whole, he dropped the ball as a father. By and large, he was not the right father for these kids and they are now forced to fill in the gaps on their own. Yet, in the final act, The Glass Castle changes. Instead, Jeannette is portrayed as somebody who needs to apologize and forgive her father for the hurt he caused. It can be a bit unsavory to many, but it often rings true to reality. Rex did love his children and was unafraid to make it known, creating fond memories with them and doing whatever he could to support Jeannette’s dreams in college, even if they were not his own for his daughter.
While the fact that he cared for Jeannette and is dying is not enough to make up for all of the wrongs he committed, at no point does The Glass Castle suggest that it is the case. Instead, the film positions Jeannette’s rightful resentment of her parents as an obstacle to her own enjoyment of life. She has spent so much of her life trying to avoid becoming her parents that she has forgotten their positive traits such as their sense of adventure, their loving nature, and their creativity. As a result, she has forced herself to like her obviously dull fiancé, her job that wastes her writing talent, and a poor relationship with her youngest sibling who she left with her parents.
By harboring hatred inside herself, Jeannette is only losing power over her and her success. She denies who she really is – a carbon copy of her free spirit father – in favor of wearing a mask and pretending to be something she is not. To find true happiness, she must no longer allow her past to own her present. She must overcome it and the best way to do that is to forgive her parents. They caused the pain and hurt she harbors in her heart and to embrace them would no longer provide it agency on her life. That said, the film’s handling of this issue is rather bumpy and its greatest fault. The Glass Castle has power and truth in its depictions, but is overdone to the point that some of its message regarding forgiveness gets muddled.
By making this film one in which Jeannette must come to terms with her youth to realize that, no matter what happened, her family is her family and the only one she has, the film details her risks through its depiction of Rex. Potentially sexually abused and definitely physically abused by his hot-tempered mother, Rex was once Jeannette and her siblings. Writing poetry expressing his pain and inner anguish, Rex strove so hard to not become his parents that he wound up becoming them in a slightly altered fashion. Whereas they stayed in West Virginia for their entire lives, Rex frequently moved and quickly escaped their clutches once he was of age. To return home, as he does, is to admit failure and the fact that he was unsuccessful in trying to blaze his own trail in the world. What was once an idealistic and hopeful man became a brutal alcoholic as he harbored so much hatred in his heart for his own parents that his life became the embodiment of a self-fulfilling prophecy. While, again, many will dislike the film placing Jeannette in a position where she must forgive Rex for the pain he caused her and her siblings, it is truly her best possible scenario. Without doing so, she would be on a certain path to becoming just like Rex in the years to come.
However, no matter how powerful The Glass Castle is, the film is certainly sanitized. In reading descriptions of Jeannette Walls’ memoir of the same name, it is clear that the film left out or sanitized details – especially with its final act reunion – along the way. Perhaps the best example of how the film copes with these problems is through humor. Often funny and charming in a natural, family-like way, The Glass Castle manages to make dysfunction not seem all so bad because the family is laughing. While the film’s brutal truths about tragic childhood endured by the Walls children are brought to life, they do feel glossed over to some degree in the name of making the final product less difficult to watch.
Unlike Cretton’s Short Term 12, The Glass Castle lacks a gut punch at the end that rings with authenticity. Perhaps it is due to this film’s far less indie production or the fact that it was not drawn from Cretton’s own experiences, but The Glass Castle seems to go out of its way to end happy. Pouring on the sap thick and heavy at the end, the film’s finale endears you to the entirety of the quirky and odd Walls family, completely glossing over the pain and trauma that was on display. While the reunion and forgiveness was appropriate, Cretton seems far too eager to just jump into mush at the end, nearly undermining the preceding events of the film. As a result, The Glass Castle feels as though it wishes to be an endearing albeit weird film like last year’s Captain Fantastic, but forgets to balance that with the events shown in this film. It is a miscalculation and a thoroughly rocky ending to an otherwise powerful, poignant, and stirring work.
With an uncanny ability to play endearing drunks, Woody Harrelson’s Rex Walls character feels eerily similar to the character he played in 2005’s The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. Similarly a drunk and the head of a poor family, Harrelson’s character there similarly has his positives that often get entirely blotted out by his overwhelming negatives. As a result, his performance in The Glass Castle feels entirely within his comfort zone and, likely, not a major challenge. Fortunately, his performance does often steal the show with few actors capable of making such a thoroughly unlikable man so likable. His natural charm and earnest charisma make him a man who is easy to root for and fall for. Jeannette constantly falling for his promises to build a “glass castle” for them to live in is easy to believe, as Harrelson’s performance is one that makes you root for Rex to the point that even the audience may begin to believe the glass castle could one day come to fruition.
As Jeannette Walls, Brie Larson performs well but not given nearly as much to do as Harrelson or Watts. Perhaps her best quality in the film is relating the underlying unhappiness felt by Jeannette in spite of her seemingly perfect life. Subtly written into the film via her constantly packed bags or her passion when fiancé David (Max Greenfield) arm wrestles with Rex, Jeannette is a woman with Walls blood flowing through her no matter how much she wishes to run away from that fact. Larson communicates this cognitive dissonance perfectly, acting with a level of comfort in scenes with her family that is never felt when she is with her fiancé or at work. While her words may profess that she is happy in her typical life, Larson’s body language tells an entirely different story. The realization of this is truly a great compliment to Larson’s performance in the film, even if she does feel upstaged by Harrelson’s dominating presence.
Ultimately, The Glass Castle is a film that possesses a great understanding of why people act the way in they do and how they seek to grow. It retains much of the same emotional resonance and power as its predecessor, but is far too willing to ditch harsh reality in favor of a sugary sweet ending. Proving to be its biggest flaw, The Glass Castle‘s refusal to deal a final punch in the gut is what prevents Cretton’s latest from being a profound viewing experience.