When you’re a kid and your father stares into a campfire, pointing out the place where flames vanish into air, and he talks about existing on “the boundary between turbulence and order,” you figure he’s got a philosophy of life.
True enough for Rex, the powerful patriarch in “The Glass Castle.” Unfortunately, Rex also has violent mood swings, an inability to finish projects and rampant alcoholism.
As Rex, Woody Harrelson gives another huge, fearless performance, with maximum turbulence and precious little order. He’s the main reason to see this uneven but forceful film.
“The Glass Castle” is adapted from the bestselling memoir by Jeannette Walls. We first meet Jeannette (played by Oscar winner Brie Larson) in 1989, swanning around New York society as a popular gossip columnist. She’s got an investment-banker fiance (Max Greenfield) and a classy veneer.
Flashbacks — which occupy the majority of the film — reveal her background. With two irresponsible parents, Rex and Rose Mary (Naomi Watts), the young Jeannette and her three siblings lead a vagabond life marked by sudden departures from dilapidated homes.
Eventually they land in Rex’s West Virginia hometown, where things will get worse before they get better.
The film reunites Larson with her “Short Term 12” director Destin Daniel Cretton, and “The Glass Castle” shares a couple of similarities with that indie: an ability to capture moments of achingly precise detail (most of them hurtful), and a tendency to gloss over important things in a superficial way.
In particular, the movie’s tone is challenging. We’re meant to see that there are no easy conclusions about an existence like this: At times it’s grueling, but at times exhilarating, too.
But a few too many scenes reach for an uplifting “Little Miss Sunshine” feeling (with a helping of “Captain Fantastic”), which takes some of the sting out of the truly appalling parental instability on display. Rex and Rose Mary are awful parents, but the film regularly gets sentimental about them.
“The Glass Castle” shows the real-life versions of the characters during the end credits, a gimmick that deflates the drama we’ve just been watching. Despite these drawbacks, the movie really is compelling.
Larson is good as always, and two young actresses, Ella Anderson and Chandler Head, are very touching as the younger versions of Jeannette.
Harrelson is so strong that he captures why Jeannette would have mixed feelings about Rex. A raging narcissist who’s also full of charisma, Rex is like Harrelson’s character from “Natural Born Killers,” but older and not homicidal. Harrelson understands this kind of emotional maniac, and he brings the brilliant monster to life in an indelible way.
“The Glass Castle” (3 stars)
An adaptation of Jeannette Walls’ memoir about growing up with irresponsible parents in the margins of society. The movie’s uneven but compelling, and dominated by Woody Harrelson’s fearless performance as Jeanette’s charismatic maniac of a father. With Brie Larson, Naomi Watts.
Rating: PG-13, for violence, subject matter
Opening Friday: Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre Mountlake Terrace, Edmonds Theater, Everett Stadium, Marysville, Stanwood Cinemas, Sundance Cinemas, Thornton Place Stadium, Woodinville, Cascade Mall