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The Glass Castle: An Extraordinary Cast Brings This Tragic Tale to Life (Review)

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The idea of a “glass castle” is something fantastical.  It is an elegant structure unlike any other.  While other buildings rely on concrete or timber as a foundation and structure, this is one that stands on it’s own with just glass.  The way to glass is meant to be designed is to allow light in without changing the temperature inside the structure.  It’s such a grand idea that it’s just barely out of the realm of reality. It’s a grand gesture that is impossible to truly fulfill, and it is as much a sham as it is see through.  The idea of a glass castle is a strong metaphor that lays the groundwork for the film The Glass Castle, based on the memoir of the same name by Jeanette Walls.

 

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Jeanette recounts her life growing up in a nomadic family with an unorthodox lifestyle.  Both her eccentric mother trying to make it as an artist and her alcoholic father try to paint the world with hopeful colors to distract them from their impoverished reality.


This film is heavy duty.  From director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12), his adaptation of Jeanette’s memoir reads faithful to the source material.  The film starts with an adult Jeanette, played by Brie Larson (Room), living her life as a journalist in New York City with her fiance.  One night while taking a cab home from dinner, she sees her homeless parents digging through the trash.  Played by Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts respectively, Rex and Rose Mary Watts chose to live on the streets of New York to be closer to their daughter.  Jeanette reaches out to her siblings, who also live in New York, to tell them of their parents current situation.  The film the begins to retell the story of their difficult childhood.

The film’s nonlinear plot structure is one of it strongest elements.  Both child and adult Jeanette are completely different characters and by cutting from one scene with one character to another, the actions said character go through help inform the other.  What ever hardship child Jeanette faces in one scene defines adult Jeanette, and however adult Jeanette behaves in another scene motivates child Jeanette through the plot.  The adult siblings recant tales of their upbringing, which informs these settings when they are shown in subsequent flashback scenes.

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The cast of The Glass Castle is impeccable.  Brie Larson brings another emotionally powerful performance that is almost on par with her Oscar winning performance in Room.  She can transition from cold and indifferent to any color of emotion.  One scene in particular at her engagement party is particularly heart wrenching due to her performance alone.  Naomi Watts also provides a stellar performance as Jeanette’s mother.  She is able to infuse every scene she is in with the grace and naivety her character demands.  She is equally as heartbreaking in scenes that occur later in Jeanette’s life as Jeanette begins to poke holes in her lifestyle.

The true standout performance of the film is from Woody Harrelson.  His portrayal of Rex Walls is one of the best of his entire career, and definitely deserving of an Oscar.  He commands scene after scene as a man determined to prove his lifestyle and that he can provide for his family, whether the be through certainty or denial.  The scenes focused around both him and Brie Larson contain some of the best acting of the year and will make viewers feel every emotion on the spectrum.

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The production of this film also deserves applause.  The story takes place over several very distinct decades, and the set design is able to root each scene in that specific year.  The wardrobe brings the reality of poverty to the foreground of the film.  The cinematography is superb at capturing the performances of the actors and bringing the Walls to life.  There is a nice one take in the film that lasts a little less than ten minutes, and sticks viewers with the kids trying to survive their parents in the middle of very heated and drunken argument.

The movie is not without fault.  Being an adaptation of a best selling memoir, there is a wealth of source material to craft scenes out of for the big screen.  That may not be the best decision, as the film is a bit too heavy for it’s own good given it’s runtime of a little over two hours.  When a heart breaking scenes follow another heart breaking scene, it feels like there is absolutely no hope by the end of the film.
Audiences can relate to the film’s key line “it’s hard to breathe when you’re drowning in shit” by the time the credits roll.

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The Glass Castle is a hit adaptation for screen of the best selling memoir.  The film feels incredibly faithful to it’s source material.  A bit heavy handed at time, the cast provides incredible performances that bring this story and its characters to life.  Overall, it’s a great production that warrants a trip to the theater.  Just don’t forget the tissues.

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"I'm a cinematographer based in Nashville, TN that specializes in narrative and commercial work. I'm an avid movie fan through and through, so long as there's good lighting"