Uh-oh, looks like somebody finally made a film adaptation of one of my all-time favorite books, Shirley Jackson’s WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE. I’m going to give all those involved a kudos for bravery right out of the gate because it couldn’t have been easy translating such an intimate character-driven piece to the screen. Plus I don’t envy anyone attempting to compete with the substantially personal world Jackson’s words created for her readers. No novel easily transfers to film but this is one of those magical books you simply live inside of as you read it and its fans are rarely casual about their appreciation. Anyway, I’m happy to report that for the most part I really enjoyed this take on the material, it’s a true visual stunner, the acting is uniformly intriguing and it represents a hoarding shut-in’s preoccupation surrounding heirlooms, found objects and memorabilia eloquently. On the minus side, I think some of the most dynamic plot points are too lightly touched upon and the climax, which should feel like a hammer falling, barely stings. Saddest of all, a rug-pull twist in the book limply plays out like a beyond obvious “ya think?” revelation here.
Wide-eyed and lumbering, Taissa Farmiga delivers a compelling performance as Merricat Blackwood, an 18-year-old outsider living with her serene older sister Constance (Alexandra Daddario of TEXAS CHAINSAW 3-D) and their semi-delusional Uncle Julian (the ALWAYS excellent Crispen Glover). The three live ostracized from their community and holed up in their splendiferous mansion ever since Constance was accused of being responsible for their parent’s poisoning death years prior. Much like THE FOX (‘67), THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE (‘76) PREY (‘77) and even JOHN CARPENTER’S THE THING (‘82), this is the tale of a blissfully cozy, harmonious existence that is turned upside down as soon as an untrustworthy dog shows up. In this case, the dog is a long lost (but not lost long enough) cousin named Charles (Sebastian Stan) who vaguely seduces Constance, threatens to hospitalize Julian and harangues Merricat for burying valuable treasures he clearly has his eyes on.
Thumbs up to all humans involved for their generally compelling work (although it could be said that Farmiga is a tad too oafish, Daddario is a smidge too simple, Stan is a bit too conspicuous and Glover could possibly let his freak flag fly higher) but one of CASTLE’s greatest characters, Merricat’s ebony feline Jonas, is sinfully underrepresented and it’s probably my biggest qualm. People are able to make houses and cities into characters in movies but somehow a cat character is a reach? Really all they’d have to do is show him more and speak his name more often for him to stick but for some reason, he’s treated as one of the home’s tchotchkes instead. That cool dude should be present and accounted for in every single scene where Merricat is casting and conjuring in her garden alcove.
Appalling cat representation failures aside, much like Sheena Easton in a Prince video, this movie has got “the look.” Poor me went to grab a few screenshots to illustrate this post and ended up with about fifty (truly, you could make a coffee table book out of nearly every frame). Director Stacie Passon, cinematographer Piers McGrail, production designer Anna Rackard and art director Louise Mathews all deserve kudos for this handsome devil of a flick. Even if it doesn’t quite hit all the emotional notes of the book (and really, how could it?), I think I can appreciate it as a visual companion piece of sorts. The near-constant blue/green color palette alone puts me where I want to be but I also can’t help but dig the fetishistic attention to detail regarding the hoarded bobbles and scattered random ephemera the dollhouse-like manor is nested with.
Overall, I’d say this a respectable salute that should appeal to patient viewers who are attracted to light Goth and the darker side of Martha Stewart. I know I wouldn’t mind watching it again in the future but I’m guessing I’ll always lament that Merricat’s relationship with her beloved bestie Jonas was so foolishly neglected. Cat erasure is a crime and the punishment is your movie is not as good as it so easily could have been.