Castle in the Ground, 2020.
Written and Directed by Joey Klein.
Starring Alex Wolff, Imogen Poots, Tom Cullen, Keir Gilchrist, Neve Campbell, Kiowa Gordon, Star Slade, and Marie-Josee Dionne.
After the untimely death of his mother, a teenager befriends his charismatic but troubled next-door neighbor and becomes embroiled in a world of addiction and violence just as the opioid epidemic takes hold of their small town.
In an apartment complex, an older woman takes prescription drugs to battle a life-threatening illness while a young addict uses solely to feel high. These two individuals also happen to live next door to each other, with Alex Wolff’s Henry living with the former. He is the son of Rebecca (Neve Campbell) and has put college and a stable relationship on hold in order to care for his ailing mother. Written and directed by Joey Klein (this is his sophomore narrative feature), Castle in the Ground puts this dynamic to good use, strictly going for character work focused on Henry’s interactions with these two people popping pills for reasons at opposite ends of the spectrum.
Presented in the 4:3 aspect ratio, Castle in the Ground isn’t concerned with its environments (which is fine considering it’s mostly in conventional locations anyway). Naturally, Joey Klein uses that creative choice to focus on the actors themselves, their facial expressions, and every small subtle gesture, but here it’s taken to the extreme as some shots practically smother a performer’s face to the point of seeing skin wrinkles and pores. This is a film that cares about its characters, even when they begin to make disastrous choices in the face of grievance and guilt-ridden self-destruction.
Henry has only accepted one outcome; his mother is going to get better and when she does he will finally head off to university. Rebecca is fully aware she’s not going to survive, and the film wisely does not treat this as a generic plot swerve that most audiences would see coming from a mile away. Whether it’s in a car ride home from the doctor or trying to have a private family dinner together without texting interruptions from Henry’s girlfriend, it’s evident that Rebecca has accepted her fate but simply has no idea how to break this to Henry. Even if she did, he would likely have a rebellious reaction.
Such circumstances make it all the more poetic when Rebecca does pass, which is illustrated by way of a graceful yet somber transition. In the wake of his mother’s passing, Henry cuts off all ties with every positive influence and support pillar in his life (ranging from his own girlfriend to religious friends that made a promise to care for him during these foreseen dark times), deciding to further get to know the girl next door Ana (Imogen Poots, over time, delivering a devastating performance that rises above the already fantastic work from Alex Wolff). Together, they begin recreationally using what remains of his mom’s drugs as Henry comes dangerously close to becoming a drug addict himself. He even gives the financially broke woman his mother’s old phone as a replacement, leading to the film’s strongest thematic suggestions.
In between beautifully realized character moments is a subplot involving stolen drugs and angry dealers, at times threatening to toss away the wonderful characterization in favor of a more action-oriented climax. Thankfully, Castle in the Ground never loses sight to that degree, also not forgetting to create a few additional morally intriguing characters along the way. All of this leads to a fairly remarkable closing shot, even if everything leading up to that moment is standard drug addict movie material but just elevated by terrific performances from some hot emerging talent. Castle in the Ground approaches addiction visually uniquely with ethereal aesthetics and never once loses empathy for its characters.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com