‘The Glass Castle’ Review: Woody Harrelson keeps this uneven but sincere family drama from shattering

The re-teaming of Brie Larson and writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton, having made the harrowing drama Short Term 12 together in 2013, should’ve been better than this. Strangely, Larson feels almost miscast in her role as Jeannette Walls, whose memoir this film is based on. But perhaps even more strangely, The Glass Castle is the kind of misfire that’s fascinating, the kind of misfire that almost becomes more earnest and truthful in its faults.

It’s faults are there and they nearly shatter the film. The story works through two timelines, one when Jeannette is a child and living with her parents in eccentric and rundown homes, and one when Jeannette is engaged and living in a fancy apartment. Such an approach aims at developing emotion through the comparison, through the juxtaposition of moments, yet The Glass Castle never seems to entirely commit to the structural concept and, when it does, never fully earns the ideas it wants to build in the larger image.

And for a story from a woman who deals with hardship after hardship as her parents push her and her siblings into an unconventional style of living, The Glass Castle upsettingly underserves Jeannette, always being about what happens to Jeannette and rarely being about Jeannette. Instead, the film’s true main character is Woody Harrelson’s Rex.

While that fact is problematic, and a sign of the male writers and male director, it does give Harrelson a vehicle for something truly profound. The character of Rex is a tragic man, an emotionally abusive alcoholic whose ideology puts his children in danger. And Harrelson sells every bit of it. From his playful, eccentric monologues, to his towering and terrifying yells, to his stunningly beautiful and soft moments of humanity, Harrelson fully capitalizes on his strengths as an actor, building one of his most human characters. It’s his owning of the character, his inhabitation of Rex that makes it difficult not to tear up when Rex has his most raw moments of connection with his family.

And that’s why the faults don’t cause The Glass Castle to collapse on itself. The story is about imperfection, in person and in family, so if the film is imperfect, it can be forgiven.

Grade: C+

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