Woody Harrelson might be the best contemporary actor at playing an alcoholic. Naomi Watts and Brie Larson star alongside Harrelson in The Glass Castle, the third feature film (and first under a major studio) from writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton. With so much talent and so many resources, a film like this shouldn’t go wrong. It does.
Harrelson plays Rex Walls, husband and father of four. Rex is whimsical and idealistic, struggling to hold a job and ranting about social injustice, his alcoholism throwing the family into poverty and a myriad of dangerous and abusive situations. Watts plays the wife, Rose Mary, an eccentric painter, and Larson stars as one of their daughters, Jeannette. While Harrelson is the most dynamic screen presence, the script focuses on Jeannette as she matures in a dysfunctional environment. The family squats in half a dozen abandoned houses across the South before Jeannette escapes for a sophisticated life in New York City as a gossip columnist. Based on the best-selling memoir by the real-life Jeannette Walls, the film cuts between time periods, showing us glimpses of Jeannette’s glitzy life in the city while always reminding us of her nomadic roots.
With subject matter fraught with so much tension and strife, this could have been a darker film. Perhaps it should have been. Cretton’s script tries to redeem Rex’s abusive alcoholism by exalting his playfulness and idealism–he may have hit his wife, but he taught the kids to dream. What actually happens is more akin to denial than it is to redemption, with the family–at least in the film–white-washing his abuse rather than confronting it. The catharsis never comes; all we get is sentimentality.
That said, it is clear that Cretton is deft with his actors. The performances are compelling, and a few scenes are even brilliant, but the effect is lost as soon as we are whisked away to the next traumatic or whimsical encounter.
Chandler Ryd is a senior studying English.