‘Glass Castle’ Disturbingly Untrue To The Memoir

‘I’ On Culture

I had a difficult time with The Glass Castle, based on the memoir of Jeannette Walls. It was considered an important book about a dozen years ago, a look at a poverty-stricken childhood that eventually affected a sophisticated journalist as she got older. This is not a movie that I normally would bother with, but my wife persuaded me to see it.

Walls’ family, led by charismatic nut job/purported genius Rex (Woody Harrelson) and his far-too-supportive wife Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), wandered through the poorest areas of America in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They were essentially poor by choice. Rex was convinced he was brilliant and would invent some device any day that would make them incredibly rich. Since riches would come, there was not much point in doing anything else except use alcohol for stimulation.

Walls herself (Chandler Head and Ella Anderson as a child, Brie Larson as the adult) is almost tossed aside in the main story. She suffers deprivation and parental cruelty but loves her parents even while being constantly embarrassed by them.

We see the family wind up in Appalachia, living in a home with no electricity or running water. Interestingly, the house itself seemed rather nice. At one moment, I actually wondered whether the people from Hollywood had actually ever dealt with the really poor.

Considering that we see around a decade of wandering, it is clear that the parents are very troubled. Rex could be charming but, eventually, he seems always up for a bit of cruelty. Eventually, when old enough, his kids run away, but he never seems to learn anything from that experience.

We see the older Jeannette at work, never quite fitting in. Instead of pride that she escaped her terrible situation, she worries that she will be denigrated by others because she lacks some of the polish that children of the middle and upper classes have. In other words, she is still traumatized, but romanticizes her childhood.

Her parents, now more than 20 years later, are squatters on the lower East Side of Manhattan, getting sustenance from Dumpster diving.

One major problem with the film is that it is far more a remembrance of Rex rather than Jeannette. He is the central character, and because he is romanticized, we get a picture that is distorted.

Rex’s behavior, according to the film, is rooted in his dealing with his own mother, a true monster. But that seems to be an excuse for his never doing much with his life. The parents have a large brood of children but take very little care to make certain they are fed and educated. A lifetime of scams and alcoholism becomes romanticized even while we clearly see the damage.

It is also clear that the filmmakers, director Destin Daniel Cretton who co-authored the film with Andrew Lanham, toned down the worst aspects. The book was far tougher on Rex, but as they seem to have made him the lead of the movie and made him more charming than he seemed in the book.

The over-the-top performance by Harrelson is, ironically, a real flaw. He thinks of himself as a sort of Jack Kerouac, a hip poet and wanderer, even while he puts his children through a form of hell. It is such a strong performance that everyone else seems to fade away into the background. Watts seems nothing much more than a devoted enabler. And Larson, a superb Oscar-winning actress, playing the narrator, only seems to really appear when Harrelson is not on screen.

The film seems to be in love with Rex’s character. There should be anger. He may be sweet and charismatic, especially when sober, but he was an essentially useless member of society, one who clearly never changed. His children grew up facing enormous deprivation, yet the film likes to focus on the bonding they did. If Rex got a decent job and the children had a chance for a normal life, we would have a happy “Hollywood” ending. Instead, Cretton tries to have us believe that Rex’s long-term torture of his children is merely a minor obstacle. He wants us to love a monster.

The film fails the sniff test. I thought Harrelson’s performance was superb and there were some good moments, but by the end I wanted to be able to slug a man who was so self-indulgent that he damaged his kids.