Writer Shirley Jackson is best known for her fifth novel “The Haunting of Hill House” which was turned into a feature film by Robert Wise in 1963 and then again in 1999 with Jan de Bont at the helm. “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” is based on Jackson’s 1962 novel and final work which many consider her masterpiece. Taissa Farmiga takes on the role of protagonist-narrator Merricat Blackwood who lives in a large mansion along with her older sister Constance (Alexandra Daddario) and ailing Uncle Julian (Crispin Glover). The rest of the family was poisoned with arsenic six years ago and now the Blackwoods are treated like pariahs by the local villagers. The film does justice to Jackson’s novel thanks to the cast especially Farmiga who delivers one of her best performances.
When we first meet 18-year-old Mary Katherine Blackwood aka Merricat she is seated at a desk in the gothic Blackwood mansion writing her memoir as sunlight seeps through the cracks of a boarded-up window. She writes “The Blackwoods have always lived in this house. We have never done anything to hurt anyone. We put things back where they belong. And we will never leave here. No matter what they say or what they do to us. Never. But a change is coming. And nobody knows it but me.” Taissa Farmiga plays the youngest member of the family who serves as our foreboding narrator.
As the camera roams the darkened home there are signs of a recent fire; a charred bedroom, a broken-down staircase, and water dripping from the ceiling. What has happened to the once stately manor? Before that question is answered the film jumps back to last Tuesday as our story begins.
“Tuesday is the most terrible day. Because Tuesday I must go to town and see all of those who hate us” recounts Merricat as she sets out to buy groceries in the village below. She stops at a large tree to bury three silver coins as part of a protection spell to keep her safe for one whole day. The townsfolk believe Merricat’s older sister Constance killed their parents by poisoning them and Uncle Julian who survived but is now wheelchair-bound. Sneers and disparaging remarks are hurled towards Merricat as she keeps her eyes to the ground while walking at a steady pace to and from the small market.
No matter how many spells Merricat casts she can’t stop the unexpected visit by the family’s dashing cousin Charles (Sebastian Stan from “The Avengers”). His unannounced stopover is welcomed by shut-in Constance although Merricat feels there is an ulterior motive behind his welfare check. It doesn’t take long for Charles to swoon Constance over and soon he begins to take on the role of the family’s patriarch. His presence reminds Merricat of all the pain she and her sister have suffered under the hands of men, especially their father. Tension rises between Merricat and Charles as they become adversaries while the story heads towards a showdown.
Jackson wrote the novel in 1962 and while there’s no timestamp it’s obvious that we are experiencing life in an era before smartphones and Spotify, although the record player doesn’t yield any clues thanks to vinyl’s resurgence by Millennials. Everything in the Blackwood home looks like it came from a 50’s catalog thanks to Anna Rackard’s production design.
I love Crispin Glover but here as Uncle Julian, the usually colorful actor is rather subdued as he rambles on about the past while remaining in the confines of his wheelchair. Sebastian Stan who has become best known for his role as Marvel’s Bucky Barnes is quite good as the conniving cousin while Alexandra Daddario, who made her feature debut in Noah Baumbach’s “The Squid and the Whale” is ideal in the role of agoraphobe Constance who comes off as one of the Stepford Wives. The film, however, is driven by Taissa Farmiga’s splendid performance as the maternal Merricat.
Opens Friday, May 17 in Houston at Alamo Drafthouse LaCenterra and Studio Movie Grill Pearland. Also available VOD