By Jennifer Szalai May 16, 2019
In “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” a playfully arch and unsettling film based on Shirley Jackson’s 1962 novel, there’s nobody obvious to root for; everyone is dour, foolish, phony or deranged. Possibly even murderous. Under Stacie Passon’s precise direction, this gothic fable of isolation and violence expertly treads a fine line between tragedy and camp.
Merricat (Taissa Farmiga), still childlike at 18, lives in the cavernous Blackwood family chateau with her older sister, Constance (Alexandra Daddario), and their sickly Uncle Julian (a reliably furtive Crispin Glover). The girls’ parents died several years ago after eating a suspicious meal that left Uncle Julian debilitated and the sisters shunned. Constance, unfailingly coifed and composed, makes do as a dutiful homemaker, baking pies and canning fruit with a glistening smile plastered on her pretty face. A skulking, slouching Merricat endures the taunts of the townspeople when she makes weekly trips for provisions, rushing home to bury trinkets in the castle’s enormous garden and casting protective spells.
The sisters take care of each other; they cuddle in bed and fantasize about living on the moon, which hangs outside of Merricat’s window like a cartoon cutout. Their home is full of lush fabrics, gorgeous wallpaper and a worrying number of candles. (Piers McGrail’s cinematography makes the tableaus look like twisted photo spreads from Life magazine.) Farmiga’s Merricat speaks in a clipped cadence that sounds both creepy and competent; her knowledge of mushroom toxicology is troublingly comprehensive. Uncle Julian silently glides into the frame in his wheelchair, suddenly reciting cryptic lines from the family history he’s writing. Constance tends to the house in what appears to be a state of willful oblivion, looking cheerful and stunned.
The delicate balance of the household is upended with the arrival of Charles (Sebastian Stan), a dashing cousin who seems helpful at first but whose authoritarian streak reveals itself when he takes an aggressive interest in Merricat’s buried treasures and starts calling Constance “Connie.” (Having him chug milk from the carton is also a nice touch.) Like the jeering men in the town, Charles turns out to be an entitled patriarch; under every languid grin lies a leer and a smirk.
Mark Kruger’s screenplay isn’t subtle, but then neither is Jackson’s novel — a sharp, demented fairy tale in which the women live happily ever after despite the men, rather than because of them. The outside world is cruel, capricious, inhospitable; only when the sisters lock themselves inside their crumbling castle can they truly be free.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Director Stacie Passon
Writer Mark Kruger
Stars Patrick Joseph Byrnes, Una Carroll, Peter Coonan, Joanne Crawford, Alexandra Daddario
Running Time 1h 30m
Genres Drama, Mystery, Thriller