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

Bernard Walsh
'We Have Always Lived in the Castle'
Emotionally high-stakes drama.
5/17/2019

Stacie Passon’s sophomore feature stars Taissa Farmiga and Alexandra Daddario as sisters traumatized by a dark family legacy.

Two young women challenge the presumptions of patriarchy in Stacie Passon’s '60s-set We Have Always Lived in the Castle, adapted from the novel by Shirley Jackson, who also penned the horror mystery The Haunting of Hill House. Incorporating elements of drama and suspense, Passon’s pic avoids directly confronting her heroines' covertly sociopathic tendencies, preferring to view them as the outcome of internalized trauma rather than criminal intent.

Since the unexpected deaths of their parents by arsenic poisoning six years earlier, 18-year-old Mary Catherine "Merricat" Blackwood (Taissa Farmiga) and her older sister, Constance (Alexandra Daddario), have lived together in isolation. The women share the cavernous Blackwood family mansion with their wheelchair-bound Uncle Julian (Crispin Glover), who was badly debilitated by the incident. Despite Constance's acquittal in the murder of their parents, Merricat lives in fear of the townspeople of Shirleyville, who continue to suspect Constance of the killings and harbor longstanding grievances against the Blackwoods, forcing Constance to confine herself to the property of "the castle." Merricat attempts to ward off the locals' abiding malevolence by casting supernatural spells, burying family and personal objects in an underground plot in the woods surrounding the estate that she's consecrated to protect herself, Constance and the Blackwoods' legacy.

Passon, working from a script by Mark Kruger, feints toward American Gothic-tinged suspense early in the film, with DP Piers McGrail’s camera stealthily searching the Blackwoods' cavernous mansion while Merricat's voiceover dwells on the untimely death of her parents. Later plot developments shift the genre emphasis more toward melodrama, as a heightened sense of peril threatens to tear the devoted sisters apart when Merricat's rudimentary magic, drawn from The Book of Spells and Incantations, fails to provide the protection she craves.

Neither can she predict the future, so she's not expecting the arrival of their handsome and charming cousin Charles Blackwood (Sebastian Stan), in his fancy red convertible sports car. He's come to visit and get reacquainted with the sisters and Uncle Julian, but Merricat doesn't remember him at all. Her suspicions about his motives only intensify when he begins showing inordinate interest in various valuables around the mansion. It's his intense focus on Constance that most alarms Merricat, however, and alerts her to the threat he poses, particularly when he begins bullying Julian, whose deteriorating memory leaves him confused and vulnerable. Some kind of horrible confrontation seems inevitable, and Merricat isn't at all sure she'll be able to protect her family from Charles' rage and greed.

With intense, deep-set eyes and her hair tightly pulled back into two thick braids, Farmiga makes for a formidably determined teen who's constantly facing harassment and dismissed by practically everyone except her sister and uncle. Farmiga transforms Merricat’s desperate attempt to achieve independence into a monumental struggle with the inner demons that threaten to consume her. Daddario's counterpoint as her reserved, self-deluded sister is all outward calm until escalating conflict releases her carefully concealed trauma. In his role as the imperious Charles, who soon gets accustomed to running the Blackwood household to suit his preferences, Stan's gentrified menace proves no match for the sisters, although he succeeds in terrorizing Glover's initially vibrant Uncle Julian into cowering submission.

Passon favors carefully appointed camera compositions enhanced by production designer Anna Rackard’s sometimes flamboyant decor and a frequently saturated color palette. Occasionally extreme camera angles and several ominous flashbacks suggest Merricat's troubled mind-set, but prove at odds with the realistically suspenseful plot.

Distributor: Brainstorm Media
Production companies: Great Point Media, Furthur Films, Albyn Media
Cast: Taissa Farmiga, Alexandra Daddario, Sebastian Stan, Crispin Glover
Director: Stacie Passon
Screenwriter: Mark Kruger
Producers: Robert Mitas, Jared Ian Goldman
Executive producers: Michael Douglas, Jim Reeve, Laurence Hyman, Kieran Corrigan
Director of photography: Piers McGrail
Production designer: Anna Rackard
Costume designer: Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh
Editor: Ryan Denmark
Music: Andrew Hewitt

96 minutes