Castle in the Ground by Joey Klein unfolds in an emotional fog. The colours are muted and hazy. Nineteen-year-old Henry (Alex Wolff) cares for his sick mother Rebecca (an incredible performance by Neve Campbell) but issues of life and death remain off the table of discussion. Any attempt to breach the inevitable is shaken off or ignored until it’s too late. Set in Sudbury during the dead of winter, everything is cold and inhospitable. Fatigue and pain dull everything as Rebecca’s sickness foregrounds all other life.
After Henry’s mother dies, he gets drawn into the world of his neighbour Ana (Imogen Poots). She’s a recovering addict, excitable and impulsive. After the death of his mother, he falls deeper into a sampling of her leftover meds. Henry, already prone as his mother’s caregiver to self-effacing impulses, plunges into her world. Without realizing it, he replaces one caregiving position for another, falling into a toxic cycle of destruction.
Castle in the Ground quickly falls into a grey landscape of Canadian survival cinema. It’s an impressionistic but socially pointed view of the abuses of pharmaceutical drugs in Canada. Rather than being exploitative or judgmental, it’s merely sombre, focused on the fragility of the human body and soul. It is an accomplished film technically, and the performances stand out as fresh and naturalistic. Yet it can’t fully extradite itself from its own darkness. The film’s dramatization of addiction seldom diverts from a familiar laid out path. Perhaps, though, that speaks more to the predictable trials and tribulations of drug addiction than anything else.
Yet, the film manages to subvert some of the more obvious pitfalls of the genre by keenly observing the layers of engagement and performances. As driven as they are by their need for a hit, the characters fall into patterns they’ve seen in pop culture. The metatextual layer of characters like “Polo Boy” modelling his drug addict persona off what he’s seen on TV, versus the awkwardness of being unable to escape his “authentic self” while living in a small town, add compelling layers of tension. The fabric of romanticization of the drug world versus its grim and sad reality lie at the heart of the film’s appeal.
It’s a movie that ultimately focuses on the frayed purgatorial landscape of addiction. Emotions and desires, even if exaggerated and impulsive, are filtered through the fog of drugs. The world is smokey and directionless, existing between life and death. As Henry is thrown lifesavers, in the form of help from his girlfriend or members of his synagogue, he refuses them. Whether eaten up by guilt or grief, he prefers to linger in non-existence than to be drawn back into the world of the living.
As far as films depicting drug addiction go, it’s better than most. It’s patient, articulated and reflective. It allows silences to unfold and intimacies to grow. The bar for the genre, however, is low and filled with cheesy shocks and exploitative twists. The success of Castle in the Ground speaks to how mediocre most films about addiction and the drug world handle their subject. Yet, it also never really transcends those trappings either. The latter half of the film, in particular, falls into many of the old tropes of the genre, relying on the anxious fears of violent reprisals. It’s an obvious direction for the story to take — it’s where they all go — but the lack of ambition grates. The film loses its way in this second half, even though it still has warm and intimate moments.
Castle in the Ground won’t be for all. For viewers who are tired of or not particularly keen on addiction dramas, it likely won’t impress. It might be better than most, but it hardly reinvents or subverts the genre in a grand and ambitious way. The film’s real strength lies in the sensitivity of the performances and the naturalistic, almost mundane approach to the film’s universe. At the very least, it’s good enough to anticipate whatever project director Joey Klein tackles next. ■
Castle in the Ground directed by Joey Klein and starring Neve Campbell and Alex Wolff is on VOD now.
Castle in the Ground IMDb
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