The Glass Castle is a very difficult movie for me to review, simply because I came to hate its key character. Based on a memoir by Jeanette Walls (which I have not read), the film describes Jeanette’s turbulent life, made so because her brilliant but besotted father couldn’t hold a job or stay out of trouble, continuously moving his family from one ramshackle place to another. I am going to assume that Jeanette’s memoir is uplifting, a story of resiliency and strength in the face of overwhelming poverty and abuse, which might make its drama worthwhile. But the movie is all about the abuse, and the drunkenness, and the tragedy of what this man did to his family, and I absolutely hated most of it.
Destin Daniel Cretton’s film adapts some of Walls’ memoir, but presumably not all of it. It tries to present the family’s travails as part adventure, part comedy and part tragedy, secure in the knowledge that the children did not succumb to their irresponsible upbringing and matured to become functioning adults. This is only partially successful, as it seems to me that all three of the kids have or will have psychological issues that will haunt them forever because their father was such a failure and their mother did not help matters.
Now, people are free to live as they please in this wonderful country, and if someone wants to go off the grid, reject the so-called normal life and raise a family as hermits they can do so. Maybe there is a kind of adventure to trying to fool everyone all the time. But don’t try to hold this kind of irresponsible abuse as uplifting because it isn’t. According to the movie I saw these children were psychologically and physically abused, repeatedly, and anyone who tried to stand up against such behavior was rebuffed. At center is the father figure, Rex (Woody Harrelson), who at times tries to do the responsible thing, but eventually fails, again and again. Woody Harrelson’s performance is strong and smart, unapologetically ugly when it has to be. But I hated this character. Since I was alone in the theater I took to talking back to the screen, telling him what a jerk he was being until I grew tired of hearing myself complain.
Is it a mark of bravery or strength when a movie creates a character so unlikable that you cannot stand him or her? In some cases, I would argue yes. Here, I vote no. I wanted Jeanette (Brie Larson) to tell off Rex innumerable times, or hit him with a baseball bat. To characterize this chronic abuse as drama is to ennoble it, and I will not subscribe to such hypocrisy. The film is an exercise in anguish despite the professionalism with which it is made, and its occasional effectiveness. I see it as a misguided attempt to justify horrible human behavior. ☆ 1/2. 20 September 2017.