Some films are uniquely unsuited for pandemic lockdown viewing. Take for instance Castle in the Ground, a moderately affecting grief drama that builds a compelling intimacy and then allows it to evaporate as it lurches unpersuasively into a claustrophobic quasi-thriller set against the backdrop of the opioid crisis in Sudbury, Ontario. A layered lead performance from Alex Wolff fosters emotional involvement only up to a point given that great chunks of the movie are spent in dingy apartments experiencing woozy OxyContin highs amid artful chiaroscuro lighting. Not how most folks will be looking to fill their downtime right now.
There are numerous illuminating drug dramas stretching back decades — among them The Panic in Needle Park, Drugstore Cowboy, Requiem for a Dream and Heaven Knows What — that pull off the tricky high-wire act of plunging you into the dark world of addiction while making you care about self-destructive characters. This is not one of them.
Canadian writer-director Joey Klein tells a story of one nice Jewish boy’s descent into substance abuse following the death of his mother but offers little psychological insight beyond the standard portrait of drug dependence as an insidious trap. The film is quite well-acted and made with a stylistic imprint that’s atmospherically tailored to the subject matter, if a little fussy and self-conscious at times. But it’s an unrewarding downer.
Against the objections of his ailing single mother Rebecca (Neve Campbell), 19-year-old Henry Fine (Wolff) has decided to defer starting college, insisting that he’ll look at schools once she’s kicked her cancer. That seems like blind optimism on Henry’s part, even if Rebecca initially hides news of her relapse from him. Meanwhile, he regularly picks up her prescriptions and grinds up her painkillers, mixing them with jelly for easy digestion. Alone in his room, he wraps tefillin straps around his arm as he prays for her recovery.
Wolff and Campbell strike a delicate balance of tenderness and distance in these early scenes, their physical closeness shadowed by Henry’s anxiety and Rebecca’s desire to protect him. Her efforts to prepare him for “every outcome” meet resistance, but the melancholy mood of his home life spills over into time spent with his girlfriend Rachel (Star Slade) as the separation of her departure for college approaches.
When Rebecca’s pain becomes so intense she demands a morphine patch, Henry reminds her the pharmacist has warned against combining her medications. But her insistence causes her son to comply, and the fatal result makes him blame himself for her death.
While this mother-son tragedy is still playing out, Henry starts encountering Ana (Imogen Poots), his neighbor across the hall, whose hard-partying noise levels disturb Rebecca’s rest. It emerges that she’s staying in a relative’s apartment while in a recovery program for opioid addiction, but the pharmacist’s refusal to keep refilling her methadone prescription causes her to rely on her dealer, Polo Boy (Keir Gilchrist), to take the edge off. Henry watches the comings and goings at Ana’s place through the peephole in his front door, witnessing the arrival of a masked intruder who swipes Polo Boy’s supply of Oxy.
There’s no denying Poots’ unflinching commitment to the jittery character, conveying the self-serving cunning of the addict as she manipulates the younger Henry into doing whatever she needs. But Ana is a Manic Pixie Nightmare Girl with no personality beyond her strung-out twitches and sudden eruptions of anger, which makes her an irritating bore to be around.
Klein’s plotting also becomes less satisfying as the involvement in the pill theft of Ana’s friends Jimmy (Tom Cullen) and Stevie (Kiowa Gordon) propels the characters to a series of dive bars, drug dens, gun standoffs and toxic highs that fail to build much tension. The sad odyssey of watching Henry work his way through the remainder of Rebecca’s meds while falling under the hazardous influence of Ana just becomes numbing as she wheedles another fix out of whomever happens to be handy.
Cullen (so terrific in Andrew Haigh’s Weekend) has a moving moment late in the action when his relationship with Stevie is revealed. But the failure to develop either of those marginal figures earlier just points up Klein’s disproportionate fascination with grungy aesthetics over robust plotting and relatable characters.
The director uses the smeared surfaces of mirrors to interesting effect to tie the erosion of Henry’s sense of self to the rituals of Jewish mourning. But frequently cutting to black between scenes as he becomes more psychologically unmoored just makes his trauma seem more remote, and the suggestion of a transference of affection when he gives his mother’s cellphone to Ana has minimal payoff.
Chris Hyson’s brooding ambient score works in tandem with the visuals to create the unsettling vibe of a psychological thriller with subtle elements of horror, but the story’s increasingly seedy milieu seems more of a pose than a destination designed to shed light on the opioid crisis. Ultimately, there’s no moment in the film as wrenching as watching the grief play over Henry’s face while the Hebrew song “Lakol Zman” is heard at Rebecca’s funeral.
Production companies: Woods Entertainment, Band With Pictures, Tip-Top Productions, Vigilante Productions, Line 200, in association with Crave
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures (VOD)
Cast: Alex Wolff, Imogen Poots, Tom Cullen, Kiowa Gordon, Keir Gilchrist, Neve Campbell, Star Slade
Director-screenwriter: Joey Klein
Producers: Williams Woods, Michael Solomon
Executive producers: Andra Gordon, Rob McGillivray, Tom Spriggs, Ben Stranahan, George Stranahan, John Hansen III, Mark Gingras, John Laing, Joey Klein
Director of photography: Bobby Shore
Production designer: Zosia Mackenzie
Costume designer: Emma Doyle
Music: Chris Hyson
Editor: Jorge Weisz
Casting: Matthew Lessall