×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’

A solid, but faithful adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s gothic fairytale about two peculiar, ostracized sisters hiding a dark family secret.

Director:
Stacie Passon
With:
Taissa Farmiga, Alexandra Daddario, Sebastian Stan, Crispin Glover.

1 hour 36 minutes

If the recent failure of films such as “The Little Stranger” and “Marrowbone” has taught us anything, it’s that audiences don’t seem as thrilled with good, bone-chilling Gothic mysteries as they once were. Today, when it comes to spine-tinglers, moviegoers seem to value jump scares and gore over psychological brooding. That hasn’t stopped filmmakers who, every few decades, revive the works of novelist Shirley Jackson. Her stories speak to a darker side of humanity. Stacie Passon, director of “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” sharply channels the author’s atmosphere of dread, paranoia, and isolation, making the past feel prescient.

Socially awkward 18-year-old Mary Katherine Blackwood (Taissa Farmiga), nicknamed “Merricat” by her family, lives with her agoraphobic sister Constance (Alexandra Daddario) and anguished, barely lucid Uncle Julian (Crispin Glover) on the sprawling grounds of Blackwood Manor. The gorgeous Gothic mansion sits high above a small New England town, like a judgmental god lording over the people.

After a mysterious tragedy involving an arsenic-laced sugar bowl befell the Blackwood family six years prior — one that robbed the young ladies of their parents and left Uncle Julian an invalid — the Blackwoods have kept to themselves, only venturing into town for necessities. But that doesn’t mean they’ve successfully avoided the ire of the resentful victims of their father’s ideologies. Merricat spends her days casting magic spells to make sure the Blackwood kingdom is kept safe from any perceivable threats, like angry townsfolk or nosy gossips. She buries talismans — such as dolls, coins, and other accoutrements — in her backyard to ward off evil spirits. However, when their estranged, suave cousin Charles (Sebastian Stan) pops in for an unannounced visit and begins assuming the role of the family patriarch, his presence completely upends Merricat’s world.

Both the cinematic adaptation and the source material are less concerned with “whodunit” (although we do find out by film’s end) than they are about the issue of female agency at a time not especially conducive to it. In that sense, Passon and screenwriter Mark Kruger are successful. They bring to life Jackson’s resonant, evergreen narrative dealing with women finding their voices, adding stylized flourishes in the process.

Not only has Merricat been silenced by the men in her life, but Constance also has experienced a similar muzzling. She’s caught in the grief stage after losing her freedom, romance, and parents in one fell swoop. Her greatest defense mechanism is denial. Feelings of otherness and oppression permeate the picture. The ensuing dramatics briefly dip into surrealism, as when Merricat sees an unsettling vision of her parents. These sentiments of sorrow are expressed with a pressing urgency and, for better or worse, tend to be a smidge too obvious.

While Merricat’s wardrobe doesn’t change much, sister Constance’s clothing does. The crinoline skirts under her impeccable dresses get more and more voluminous as the story progresses, as if to reflect the growing number of secrets stuffed underneath. The Jordan-almond-like, candy-coated quality of DP Piers McGrail’s cinematography hints at a darkness underneath the Blackwoods’ fairytale lifestyle. Composer Andrew Hewitt’s score may as well be the grand, orchestral version of whatever emanates from the music box trinket on Constance’s vanity. Anna Rackard’s production design and Louise Mathews’ art design also reflect the characters, specifically with the ’50s-era kitchen: Like the girls after their tragedy, it’s been remodeled.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'We Have Always Lived in the Castle'

Reviewed at LA Film Festival, Los Angeles, Sept. 22, 2018. Running time: 96 MIN.

Production: A Great Point Media, Further Films, Albyn Media production. (Int’l sales: Great Point Media, London.) Producers: Jared Ian Goldman, Robert Mitas. Executive Producers: Michael Douglas, Laurence Hyman, Kieran Corrigan, Jim Reeve, Robert A. Halmi.

Crew: Director: Stacie Passon. Screenplay: Mark Kruger, based on the book by Shirley Jackson. Camera (color, widescreen): Piers McGrail. Editor: Ryan Denmark. Music: Andrew Hewitt.

With: Taissa Farmiga, Alexandra Daddario, Sebastian Stan, Crispin Glover.

More Film

  • Leonardo Dicaprio Once Upon a Time

    Leonardo DiCaprio's Earth Alliance Commits $5 Million to Amazon Fires

    Earth Alliance, an environmental initiative backed by Leonardo DiCaprio, has committed $5 million toward the preservation of the Amazon rain forest following an alarming surge in wildfires. After launching Sunday, the organization’s emergency Amazon Forest Fund is working to support local partners and indigenous communities in their efforts to protect the sensitive habitats within the [...]

  • (from left) Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson)

    Box Office: 'Hobbs & Shaw' Scores $102 Million Debut in China, Nears $600 Million Globally

    Universal’s “Hobbs & Shaw” returned to first place on the international box office charts, thanks to a massive $102 million debut in China. The “Fast & Furious” spinoff, starring Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, collected another $120 million overseas, boosting its foreign tally to $441 million. “Hobbs & Shaw” is nearing the $600 million mark [...]

  • Angel Has Fallen

    Box Office: 'Angel Has Fallen' Rises to No. 1 With $21 Million Debut

    “Angel Has Fallen,” the third chapter in Lionsgate and Millenium’s action franchise starring Gerard Butler, had a stronger opening weekend than expected, collecting $21.25 million during its first three days of release. Those ticket sales were enough to top domestic box office charts, bumping last weekend’s champ, Universal’s comedy “Good Boys,” to second place. Starring [...]

  • Amanda

    ‘Amanda’ Takes Home Best Int’l Film at 15th Sanfic

    SANTIAGO, Chile    French director Mikhael Hers’ “Amanda” scooped up the Best Int’l Film award Saturday (Aug. 24) at the 15th Santiago Int’l Film Fest (Sanfic), which reported a 20% audience uptick in the past two years and continues to grow its reputation as the most vibrant and prominent film festival in Latin America’s Southern [...]

  • disney d23

    Cruella, Kit Harington and Black Panther's Return: Everything We Learned at D23 Day Two

    Not to be outdone by the avalanche of series orders and casting announcements bolstering the new streaming series Disney Plus, Walt Disney Studios showed off its film wares in a marathon presentation at D23 on Saturday. The Anaheim, Calif. expo brought star power, if perhaps fewer surprises than Friday’s presentation, as fans in princess and [...]

  • Harvey Weinstein, Katie Holmes, Taylor Swift'The

    Taylor Swift Downplays Association With Harvey Weinstein

    Taylor Swift’s association with disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein was among the topics the singer addressed in a revealing new interview with The Guardian. Weinstein held producer credits for the movies “One Chance” and “The Giver,” both of which featured Swift — in the former, a song, and in the latter, a supporting role. She [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content