STARS: Woody Harrelson, Brie Larson, Naomi Watts, Ella Anderson, Max Greenfield
DIRECTOR: Destin Daniel Cretton
He did a lot of shitty things, but he had his moments. If I had to pick one quote from the movie to sum up Woody Harrelson's character in The Glass Castle, it would be that one. Harrelson takes on the persona of Rex Walls, who was either the most free-spirited drunk, or the drunkest free spirit you'd ever be likely to meet.
Director Destin Daniel Cretton takes on a whopper of a challenge in putting together the screen adaptation of Jeanette Walls' best-selling memoir about growing up in a dysfunctional family with a capital "D."
The film opens in 1989, where we meet the adult Jeanette Walls (Brie Larson), a successful gossip columnist for New York Magazine. Her story is told in flashbacks that jump around a lot and can be confusing, but what film have I ever seen that employs this technique wasn't confusing? You've gotta be up to the challenge if you're going to be a reviewer, because few films are strictly linear anymore. (You don't play this game in short pants, even though most of the attendees in the theater were wearing them!)
Ms.Walls may be the shining example of survival and triumph in overcoming, along with her three siblings, one of the crappiest childhoods anyone would never ask for. Rex Walls, her dad, could never hold down a job and subjected his family to a nomadic lifestyle in poverty-stricken conditions, as he was usually staying one step ahead of the law. He was a raging alcoholic who would go on benders and leave his family neglected and without food for days at a time. His wife, Rose Marie (NaomiWatts), a self absorbed hippie-flippy type who fancied herself as a talented painter, was his enabler. Where the "he had his moments" part came in was that Rex Walls tried to instill in his children an extraordinary sense of independence and self-reliance. In other words, he gave them what they needed to survive HIM. As you will see in the end, it took.
In one sense, I see The Glass Castle as a series of scenes, taut and dramatic, many of which are nothing short of brilliant--each trying to outdo the other on the wow factor scale. The best of them is when dad challenges the adult Jeanette's fiancee (Max Greenfield) to an arm wrestling match. The players are all in on this one--in sports terminology you would say they left it all on the field. The scene transcends into something truly primal. It's worth the price of admission.
Woody Harrrelson, who in real life is a really good guy with a good heart, has nonetheless never shied away from playing some really scary, even sinister types. In acting your alter-ego gets to take over, and Harrelson has taken good advantage of those opportunities. Naomi Watts may be the most versatile of the actresses we see all the time in seemingly everything. They are buoyed by a fine cast of young thespians, most notably Ella Anderson as the young Jeanette.
The Glass Castle is a tad over two hours long, but don't vault out of your seat the moment the closing credits begin to roll, because you get to meet the real Rex Walls and family. Fascinating. That most of his kids still had a soft spot in their hearts for the guy after his passing is a testament to something.
Stockholm Syndrome is my guess.
I know it's early yet, and there are bound to be some great performances coming out of Hollywood this year, but my money's on Woody to win an Oscar. It's a real challenge to play such an unlikable character -- and make him sympathetic. Despite Rex Walls' obvious flaws as a father, his spirit is sometimes infectious. Until it isn't anymore.
Harrelson's acting credits began as a likable drunk on the hit TV series "Cheers" and has certainly progressed dramatically since then. I thought it was a wise choice on the director's part to give Woody a toupee to wear. Not only did it make him more closely resemble the real Rex Walls, it made me forget him as a bald psychopathic murderer in the 1994 classic Natural Born Killers.
The Glass Castle was, for me, a gasp-a-minute film. The twists and unexpected turns kept me on the edge of my seat, eyes riveted on the screen. For a family to live in such squalor and actually survive is impressive. More impressive still is the fact that Jeanette Walls, even as a child (played brilliantly by Ella Anderson), was able not only to escape but to become successful. And I loved the irony that she was the closest child to her broken down dad.
The sets, the costumes, the score (subtle as it was) were all authentic as hell. And I have to really struggle to come up with a negative about this impactful film. But here is my miniscule criticism. As the end credits rolled and we were given cameos of the real cast of characters, I felt it went on too long and interrupted what I wanted to be left with after viewing the movie. A few still photographs would've been just as effective. That being said, run don't walk to the nearest theater where this cinematic gem is being shown....
Grade: A +