Review: ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’ an “Unsettling American Gothic”
If I were to pick one word to describe We Have Always Lived in the Castle, it would be “unsettling.” There are no clear cut protagonists, antagonists, and no definitive happy ending. The main characters are all somewhat deranged and unhinged in a variety of ways. And one of them is possibly a killer. With the elements of a gothic classic, the atmosphere and tone was set pretty early on.
The film centers around two sisters Mary Katherine “Merricat” Blackwood (Taissa Farimiga) and Constance Blackwood (Alexandra Daddario). The two sisters live an almost completely reclusive life along with their ailing uncle, Julian (Crispin Glover).
The family lives in near isolation in a large manor after the mysterious poisoning of the girl’s parents six years earlier. While their parents died, Julian became debilitated and reliant on the girls. A cloud of suspicion hangs over the sisters, causing the nearby townspeople to be scornful of them. Constance, who was originally charged with her parent’s murder, was acquitted of all charges but that did nothing to change the public’s opinion of her. When Merricat makes weekly trips into the town, it seems the residents have had longstanding issues with the prominent Blackwood family. Seeing how awful the locals are, she has taken to casting protection spells any time she leaves, hoping that burying items belonging to her family will ward off any harm to her and her sister.
Merricat and Constance are very, very close, not only taking care of each other, but comforting and encouraging each other as well, and it becomes clear early on just how protective Mary Katherine is of her older sister. But, the sisters could not be more different. Merricat comes off as cold and clipped, wise beyond her years in an almost calculating way. Farmiga narrates the film, and brings life to the fragile, yet formidable Mary Katherine. A stark contrast to Constance, who seems childlike and somewhat painfully naive of everything around her. She looks and acts like the perfect porcelain doll. Their uncle Julian is clearly disturbed; haunted by the poisoning that left him paralyzed, yet coping with it by writing and turning it into an aggrandized work of fiction.
But this is the norm for what remains of the Blackwood family. That is until the arrival of Cousin Charles (Sebastian Stan). Charles is unfamiliar, he’s flashy, he’s a bully, and he’s clearly up to no good. Stan delivers a powerful performance as well — Charles is as devious as he is dashing, charming one moment, menacing the next.
Charles arrives at the Blackwood manor, a seemingly prodigal family member returned home, but he quickly takes over. Bullying not only Julian, but Merricat, all the while beguiling Constance with his charm. We see Constance bury more and more of her feelings around Charles, while Merricat buries more and more of the family items hoping to ward Charles off with her spells.
Charles, like the townsfolk, is a threat to the carefully constructed lives the sisters have built. He is loud, off putting, and domineering, just like the people who jeer and Merricat on her trips into town. It’s not enough that she has to deal with this from them, but she is now having to deal with it from within the walls of her own home. The theme here is clear: the sisters will live on in their castle despite the men trying to destroy them, like they eventually try to destroy their home. What appears on the outside as a cage that the sisters have locked themselves in, is what actually allows them to be truly free.
In conclusion, this movie is highly recommended for fans of suspenseful stories. Based on the novel by Shirley Jackson, the same author as “The Haunting Of Hill House” (which was adapted into a popular Netflix show last year), this movie differs creating its mood and atmosphere from camerawork and character study alone — without jump-scares or musical cues. It manages to show the dark depths of the human soul in more than one character, whether it is the sisters’ relationship, Charles’ true motivations, or the villagers cruelty and hatred of the house and its occupants. If you’re a fan of the classic American Gothic as well as Romantic Gothic elements, this movie is definitely the thing for you. It is creepy without giving you nightmares, it makes you consider your own cruelty and your own obsessions by giving you a tableau of characters with which to identify, to loathe, or both!
The movie is available on Apple TV and screening in selected cinemas, so be sure to check it out!