Following up her debut success of 2013’s “Concussion,” filmmaker Stacie Passon finally returns with a new feature-length film that brings the horror and gloom of writer Shirley Jackson’s final novel “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” to life. Centered on a peculiar family, shrouded in an air of gothic mystery, Passon’s adaptation of ‘Live In The Castle’ is as equally foreboding and bewildering.
Merricat (Taissa Farmiga), Constance (Alexandra Daddario) and their Uncle Julian (Crispin Glover) live in isolation, banished by the neighboring townspeople after experiencing a family tragedy six years earlier. When an unannounced guest threatens their “cozy” abode, deeper connotations behind the family’s heartbreaking affliction are slowly revealed. With a heavily cryptic aesthetic and a subliminal message that goes far beyond the surface, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” is not your ordinary adaptation where the director optimizes their creative freedom—it is, however, a translation of true faithfulness as Passon ventures to match Jackson’s dark and whimsical literary world.
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Directly lifted from Jackson’s novel, each character, specifically, Merricat, speaks in highfalutin abstractions with poetic delivery. With dialogue and narration rendered word-for-word, Passon most impressively captures the mystification, deranged irony, and considerable complexity of Jackson’s eerie prose.
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Yet, while the fidelity is admirable, Jackson’s literary language is heady and most stimulating when read. As a result, as conversations, most scenes feel overwritten and must be deciphered with an attentiveness that audiences will find more laborious and dizzying than bewitching. Nevertheless, the obscure tone is a necessity considering the heavily-explored theme of detachment and otherness.
Combining the devious mysteriousness of “A Cure For Wellness” and the magical mischief of “Miss. Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children,” with a bit of “Shutter Island” weaved in, Passon’s sophomore endeavor is atmospheric and full of paranoia. Dotted with dramatically unsettling moments and genuinely strange juxtapositions of tenor and acting, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” frolics within gothic and sickly confines. That said, its subtly twisted demeanor transports viewers through an amorphous world that increasingly flirts with disaster
Through a pair of unusual spectacles, themes of agoraphobia and sexual abuse are closely examined as Merricat recounts the tormented events surrounding her cousin Charles’ (Sebastian Stan) arrival. Having been confined to the four walls of their lavish home due to dark family secrets, ‘Live In A Castle’ plays with the ideas of anxiety, torment, trauma and the tenderness and connection of sisterhood that has helped them survive. Bonded by shared pain and distress, the sisters of this story feel the world is “full of terrible people.”
The film’s obfuscation is remarkable. ‘Live In A Castle’ flirts with hints and reveals, but never explains the source of the family’s dysfunction. And it’s the right choice; the movie already expresses something terrible and dark has transpired, and our imagination can fill in the terrible blanks.
Patient audiences will be completely taken aback by Passon’s mystifying execution of this adaptation. The themes that were intangible the in the text are made pretty clear here. While the overwrought dialogue does test attention spans, its prevailing message — humanity is malignant and inherently wicked— and the hint of something more cryptic makes Passon’s film beautifully disturbing. [B-]