Film Review: The Glass Castle

Good memoirs don’t necessarily make good movies—but good characters do, and if those characters are brought to life by brilliant actors—well, this is why 'The Glass Castle' is one of the best memoir-to-movie efforts we’ve seen in a long while.
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Jeannette Walls is in her late 50s now, and by any measure she’s a successful woman: an intelligent and talented writer who had an impressive career in New York journalism and, after one failed marriage, has found a fulfilling partnership with her husband, also a writer, with whom she now lives on a working farm in Virginia. And, oh yes, her memoir, The Glass Castle, was on the New York Times bestseller list for seven years—the same memoir that’s now a movie starring a topnotch Hollywood cast.

Yet it’s miraculous that Jeannette Walls is still here at all, a miracle she survived her childhood and teen years when she and her three siblings were deprived of any sort of “normal” upbringing—no formal education, no guarantee of a roof over their heads or food for their bellies—all because their parents, Rex and Rose Mary, were addicted to a rootless, adventurous and poverty-afflicted life on the road, at times forcing their family to live in a car and use public facilities to bathe and do laundry. It’s the kind of background that turns some kids into alcoholics or drug addicts, or dooms them to carry on a pointless life of poverty and degradation.

However, as the millions of people who’ve read Jeannette’s memoir already know, the Walls children were saved by an abundance of unconditional love, a quality (or so psychologists say) that exerts an extremely powerful influence over the impressionable minds of the very young. So powerful, in fact, that despite not knowing where their next meal was coming from, or where they’d be living the next month or next week, by the time the Walls kids became adults they possessed what appears to be an unshakeable confidence in themselves and their abilities to succeed in life. That life-saving confidence was, as it happens, an unintentional gift from their father, Rex, an eccentric, life-force of a man, a raging alcoholic, a self-taught genius, a man so hungry to experience the fullness of life—and make sure his kids experienced it too—he’d let nothing and no one stand in his way. Rex Walls was an incredibly complex real-life character, and Woody Harrelson brings the full range of his raging complexity to the screen in what has to be this actor’s most passionate and powerful performance yet.

Oscar-winner Brie Larson matches Harrelson in the complexity department, although her character’s personality is polar-opposite: As the adult Jeannette, Larson is restrained and deep, and unlike her father, she maintains control of the wild emotions roiling around inside her—at least for a while.

Jeannette is the first one we meet inThe Glass Castle, in 1989, after she’s spent years writing a gossip column in New York magazine, a job that turned her into a poised and stylishly put-together player in the New York City social scene. On this particular night, she has been out to dinner with her fiancé, David (a proper and perplexed Max Greenfield), but Jeannette is alone in a taxi on the way home when she looks out the window to see an older couple rummaging through a pile of trash on the street—a couple she recognizes as her father and mother (the latter played by Naomi Watts, who’s marvelous as a ditzy artist totally oblivious to mundane, motherly things.)

From here, the story flashes back to the day when the child Jeannette caught her clothes on fire—because Rose Mary felt compelled to paint her pictures rather than fix lunch for her kids. Jeannette winds up in the hospital with permanent scars on her torso, but Rex can’t stand to see his kid imprisoned in a hospital bed, so the entire family stages a raid to rescue Jeannette and hit the road with all their belongings—spending their first night sleeping on the ground in a Southwestern desert. “You learn by living,” Rex shouts to the desert winds as he plunges his family into yet another precarious adventure.

But not all of Rex’s ideas involve fun adventures. He sometimes takes the food money and disappears into a drinking binge, and then he puts the family through hell when he tries, as promised, to give up drinking. He’s definitely sober when he tries to teach his kids how to swim by repeatedly throwing the young Jeannette (a terrific Ella Anderson) into the deep end of the pool, an incident sparking her fury and hatred—feelings that grow even more intense as Jeannette matures. Unfortunately, as Rex sees her pulling away from him, he reacts by engaging in even more outrageous and destructive behavior.

Much of The Glass Castle is difficult for ordinary people to take, of course. (The title, incidentally, refers to the fantasy home Rex promised to build for his family.) But the movie makes clear that, despite their needlessly harsh upbringing, the Walls family remained glued together because they knew they were loved—and they also knew they were smart. Despite his truly tragic flaws, Rex Walls was a brilliant man who eagerly taught himself science, literature and math—and somehow he transferred eagerness to learn to his kids. In the end, however, Rex just could not overcome the damage done to him by his own parents—the cruelty and indifference they showed him.

The bumpy road Jeannette follows from hating her father to understanding him—and herself—takes many U-turns into the past, but the flashbacks and flash-forwards are carefully inserted to take us where we have to go. Even so, the filmmakers have sometimes skipped over Jeannette Walls’ most difficult memories, and they’ve perhaps smoothed away some of her father’s rougher edges. Nevertheless, there’s enough of the real Rex here to let Woody Harrelson give an astonishing performance—to fully flesh out all the emotional and intellectual complexities of this truly astonishing man.

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