The Glass Castle

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - PIERS MARCHANT

To para­phrase an oft-re­peated line of Tol­stoy’s, ev­ery un­happy fam­ily is unique in their own way. Jean­nette Walls, a well-es­tab­lished gos­sip colum­nist, first for New York Mag, and later for MSNBC, wrote a mem­oir about her sur­pris­ingly wild (and dirt poor) up­bring­ing, with her two sis­ters and brother be­ing led by the nose by their bril­liant, slightly un­hinged al­co­holic father, and their lov­ing but self-in­volved artist mother, at a time when no one would have sus­pected such an ac­com­plished ur­ban­ite would have come from such a hard-scrab­ble ex­is­tence in ru­ral West Vir­ginia.

Walls’ father, Rex, was some­thing of a mad­man, but his ec­cen­tric icon­o­clasm masked his own brutish child­hood, pock­marked by abuse and ne­glect. To­gether with Walls’ mother, Rose Mary, an artist with her own sort of wild streak, the pair lived al­most per­pet­u­ally on the run in the ’60s and ’70s, es­cap­ing cred­i­tors and the law by light­ing out and find­ing a new place in a dif­fer­ent state to put up


It’s the kind of child­hood story that prac­ti­cally begs for the en­com­pass­ing in­ter­pre­ta­tion and dis­tance of a mem­oir, and by all ac­counts, Walls, al­ready an ac­com­plished writer, suc­ceeded wildly in her ef­forts. So, why is it that a film from an ac­com­plished di­rec­tor (Destin Daniel Cret­ton, Short Term 12), with a bevy of ex­cel­lent ac­tors (Oscar-win­ner Brie Lar­son plays the adult Walls; Woody Har­rel­son plays Rex; and Naomi Watts, Rose Mary), based on such a pow­er­ful and evoca­tive mem­oir come out as flat as one of the many desert prairies the fam­ily en­camps upon overnight?

Part of the issue is the na­ture of the nar­ra­tive. Walls’ story is cer­tainly spe­cific and unique in its way, but Cret­ton, work­ing from his adap­ta­tion along with An­drew Lan­ham, re­duces many of the scenes down to eas­ily rec­og­nized bits. There’s the scene with the father ca­vort­ing around wildly with the ex­u­ber­ant kids, mak­ing gray wolf calls they all an­swer to; the grow­ing dis­af­fec­tion with the teenage Walls (played by Ella Anderson), be­gin­ning to see her father’s al­co­holism for what it is, the driv­ing force of his life, con­stantly lead­ing them to wrack and ruin; the oblig­a­tory scenes of the ac­com­plished cos­mopoli­tan Walls with her in­vest­ment banker hus­band (Max Green­field), at chic client din­ners, her self-alien­ation even­tu­ally prov­ing to her the er­ror of her judg­ment. Even the film’s more pow­er­ful scenes, one of which has the daugh­ter fi­nally con­fronting her father for fill­ing their heads with dreams and ideas he had no plan on com­plet­ing, feels some­how rote, as if each melody line were lifted from an ex­ist­ing song.

It’s pos­si­ble it’s the form it­self. Be­tween the work of Mary Karr, Mona Simp­son’s Any­where But Here, and To­bias Wolff ’s This Boy’s Life, and Au­gusten Bur­roughs’ Run­ning With Scis­sors and many oth­ers, we have wit­nessed the par­tic­u­lar horror of small chil­dren be­ing led around by half­mad par­ents on idio­syn­cratic jour­neys of the soul over and over again. We’ve seen and read so many of these sto­ries of wild-eyed fa­thers and clin­i­cally de­pressed moth­ers haul­ing their kids around the coun­try in a per­pet­ual search for emo­tional truth that at this point, the genre feels as set in its tropes as an ’80s slasher flick.

An­other bur­den cus­tom­ary to the bur­geon­ing genre is a heavy re­liance on slightly over-ripe metaphors — take this mem­oir’s ti­tle, which has to do with Rex’s fix­a­tion on build­ing the fam­ily a seethrough man­sion from which they will be able to look up and view the stars. But don’t stop there. Prac­ti­cally every­thing Rex does to young Jean­nette, in­clud­ing teach­ing her to swim by throw­ing her into the deep part of the pool, putting her at sex­ual risk with an old school buddy, and chal­leng­ing her fi­ance to arm-wres­tle — feels like the stuff of over­done the­atri­cal­ity. I have no doubt of Rex’s dis­tinc­tive per­son­al­ity man­i­fes­ta­tions, but far too of­ten the film lopes into a kind of stan­dard de­vi­a­tion. He’s just crazy enough to be in­ter­est­ing, and just iras­ci­ble enough to be lov­able.

This comes at no fault to Har­rel­son, who im­bues Rex with the wounded spirit of a shaman, while stuff­ing his head with the ring­ing en­dorse­ment of his own self-con­grat­u­la­tion. To Rex, the fam­ily’s many ob­sta­cles, very of­ten caused di­rectly by him, aren’t signs of his nar­cis­sism and in­abil­ity to cope. In­stead, he sees them as dis­tin­guish­ing points of honor, the way they are su­pe­rior to ev­ery­one else. The saps who live their lives ac­cord­ing to the rules, are just per­pet­u­ally scared and ul­ti­mately un­wor­thy of his at­ten­tion. In one po­tent scene, Rex, fu­ri­ous at his kids’ com­bat­ive treat­ment of his abu­sive, ogre-like mother Erma (Robin Bartlett) has a show­down with young Jean­nette in the fam­ily car. Sev­eral months sober, he wants to chuck it and hit the town to drown his pain, but his young daugh­ter re­fuses his or­der to get out of the car. Har­rel­son glares at her from the rearview mir­ror with such men­ace that he seems ca­pa­ble of al­most any kind of dev­ilry in or­der to get his way.

But too of­ten, the film flits around on airy wings. It’s per­fectly un­der­stand­able why Har­rel­son would be drawn to the script, far less so for poor Watts, whose char­ac­ter mainly chat­ters on the side­lines, al­low­ing her man to run roughshod over their af­fairs un­til all is but lost. Lar­son, com­ing off an Oscar win, cer­tainly has the chops, but

by her stage of the char­ac­ter, most of the most emo­tion­ally gru­el­ing work has al­ready been ac­com­plished. Apart from a hand­ful of scenes be­fore she fi­nally leaves home, she gets to play the Walls char­ac­ter al­ready rev­el­ing in her own ur­ban fan­ta­sia, which some­how feels like a lost op­por­tu­nity.

There’s noth­ing in­her­ently wrong with the film, though it has cer­tainly been made more glossy and smooth than the source text, but there’s not much to re­ally res­onate, ei­ther. Walls hap­pened to be at the screen­ing I at­tended, and at the elon­gated Q and A at the end, she re­marked on the unique strange­ness of see­ing her child­hood re-cre­ated and on full dis­play in front of such a crowd. I couldn’t help but won­der if, in her re­ac­tion, there was also the re­al­iza­tion that her fam­ily had been trans­formed into such eas­ily un­der­stood dra­matic car­i­ca­tures. It’s the price one has to pay for such projects, it would seem. The ques­tion that lingers is whether it was worth it.

Rex Walls (Woody Har­rel­son), daugh­ter Maureen (Eden Grace Red­field), wife Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), son Brian (Char­lie Shotwell), daugh­ter Jean­nette (Ella Anderson) and daugh­ter Lori (Sadie Sink) some­how form a fam­ily in The Glass Castle, a film based on writer Jean­nette Walls’ best-sell­ing mem­oir.

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