The Glass Castle Film Review

The Glass Castle

Tough Love Don’t Cost a Thing in The Glass Castle
By J. G.

Memo to all the dads out there: if you want to mend a relationship with your daughter, hand her a needle and make her sew up a gash in your arm. If that doesn’t work, try throwing her in a pool when she doesn’t know how to swim. Once she stops choking on chlorine, I pinky swear she’ll sing your praises for forcing her to face her fears. Wait, you drown your own anxieties in two quarts of alcohol and then smoke them out with four packs of cigarettes? Never mind, you’re a MAN.

Fierce loyalty to family and insecurities about providing for them link the film’s heroine, Jeannette Walls, and her father, Rex. Rex’s name suits him: as king of the Walls family, he is in charge of their castle. He spends his days designing a house made of glass, figuratively, but also literally. Conveniently, this “glass castle” is a metaphor for the Walls family: a work-in-progress that’s sharp at the edges and easily shattered.

Rex is played by Woody Harrelson, who bristles with the vices his characters are known for, but trades in the usual grit for warmth. His empathy peaks when young Jeannette discovers him at his drafting desk after a “tussle with a mountainside.” (Alcohol was involved). With surprising tenderness, he cheers on Jeannette as she stitches up his bicep. Here—at his most vulnerable—Rex casts his daughter as his savior: “You’re the only one who still has faith in me,” he tells her. “I’d do anything for you.”

The Glass Castle

The feeling isn’t always mutual. When we first meet the adult Jeannette, nobly played by Brie Larson, she refuses to come to her father’s rescue. Instead, she steels herself as her cab drives past Rex, now homeless and foraging for food in dumpsters. Everything about Jeannette’s adult life screams rejection of her childhood: she’s a gossip magazine mogul living on Park Ave with her millionaire fiancé, David, who’s the polar opposite of her father. (You’ll recognize him as Schmidt from New Girl; only in this story, his quirks are watered down.)  

The Glass Castle

Inevitably, David finds himself in the same room as Rex and, in a scene that would have Freud in fits, the two men arm-wrestle. I like this scene not only for the energy, but for how well Larson and Harrelson feed off one another. At the start of the match, Jeannette stands aside, mumbling to David, “Come on, you’re stronger than this.”  Overhearing her, Rex patronizingly instructs, “No fighting.”  The reverse psychology works like a charm, and Jeannette abandons the self-control that previously set her apart from her father.

Although she screams in her fiancé’s ear (“Kick his ass!”) her eyes are focused on her father. It’s the defeat of Rex, rather than the success of her lover, that she wants to see. On a psychological level (yes, I’m going there), when Rex fails, the fault of everythingggg is his, not hers. And by placing blame on him, she excuses herself from responsibility. With the coup d’état, we realize her “virtues” are less the inverses of Rex’s “vices,” but rather behaviors stemming from the same insecurities. It takes two hours of emotionally-charged flashbacks and Rex on his deathbed for Jeannette to accept the same.

The Glass Castle

The trouble for me is that the script didn’t follow a clear route to arrive at this point. Flashbacks and memories are presented in kaleidoscopic fashion: vividly revealing the characters’ true colors, but with little sense of progression. Call it the biopic curse—we’re watching the heroine from age 3 to 30-something. The film would be much stronger if it zoomed in on an interlude in Jeannette’s life: we should be able to infer her backstory and anticipate what she’ll be like in the times ahead. Focus on young Jeannette, for example, and tease the poetry of an indomitable nine-year-old attempting to navigate the humanness of her father, like Beasts of the Southern Wild accomplished so marvelously. Or, if the spotlight is on adult Jeannette: cut back the flashbacks (law of threes, people) and make sure they resonate with the present events. The way it stands, the story rambles and verges into melodramatic territory. As Jeannette says herself, give us “less talk.”

Verdict: Like the Walls family, The Glass Castle lacks subtlety and wanders without a clear direction, but is punctuated with moments of heart.