Glass House lays out some suspense before cracking to pieces
Although at heart nothing more than a traditional Gothic transplanted to SoCal, with glass walls replacing dank stone and expensive objets d’art standing in for suits of armor, The Glass House is still a stylish psychological thriller that lays out suspense before succumbing to the Hollywood standard. By the end, it throws off its slow-razor-drawn-over-raw-nerves pacing for a showboating exercise in melodramatic ludicrousness.
Leelee Sobieski (perhaps familiar to audiences from her brief turn as the jailbait in Eyes Wide Shut) plays high-schooler Ruby Baker, whose comfortable, seemingly middle-class life is turned upside down one night when her doting parents are killed in an auto accident. After the funeral, Ruby and younger brother Rhett (Trevor Morgan) are uprooted from Main Street, USA, and relocated to Malibu, as the wards of Erin and Terry Glass, godparents and erstwhile neighbors who have relocated comfortably to a stark chateau of glass and steel that juts imperiously over the Pacific Ocean.
At first, the transition seems awkward for both the siblings and their new guardians, professionals who substitute familial warmth with material trinkets (a Sony PlayStation for Rhett and fashionable threads for Ruby). However, Ruby isn’t so easily bought, as she begins to suspect the moral rot that lie behind the polished veneer of the Glasses. Although the walls of the house are clear, there are also curtains that can be drawn at any minute.
As Rhett remains oblivious, transfixed by the steady administration of his cathode soporific, Ruby remains at guard, slowly gathering clues as to the true nature of her guardians. Terry (Stellan Skarsgard) drinks heavily, isn’t above scoping out his new ward’s boobies, and seems to be very much in debt to some very dangerous—and impatient—people. Dr. Erin (Diane Lane) seems to have picked up a severe dependence on the chemical tools of her trade, just short of wandering about the house with a hype needle dangling from her arm.
Soon, the suspicious girl is clued in by her “trust” lawyer (Bruce Dern)—the siblings are now collectively worth over four million bucks. Now that she knows what the stakes are, Ruby begins to realize how deadly a game is being played.
In the hands of first-time feature director Daniel Sackheim (The X-Files and NYPD Blue), the glass walls are a non-too-subtle metaphor that plays on Middle America’s preconceptions of the superficial and rapacious Left Coast. Sackheim plays the audience with a sure hand, taking a script that relies a little too heavily on the stock conventions of the genre (when Rudy turns to adults to confide her suspicions, she is invariably betrayed back into the hands of her virtual captors) but still managing to instill a steadily mounting aura of menace to the proceedings.
He is aided immensely by the dynamic between Sobieski and Skarsgard. Sobieski’s gradual evolution from shell-shocked apathy to cold-blooded pragmatism in the face of Skarsgard’s villainy is handled believably.
Unfortunately, by the time The Glass House reaches its finale, it seems as if the accumulated suspense is too much for Sackheim to maintain. He discards the deliberate pacing to erupt into the ham-fisted conventions of straight melodrama, as Ruby and Terry trade off playing cat and mouse with a set of keys to a deus ex machina parked in the driveway.
As a whole, however, The Glass House is a welcome relief from suspense movies that are anything but, an effort that shows that there is still a school of filmmakers out there who realize that a steadily mounted sense of foreboding can be far more effective and scarier than just plain cheap shocks and gratuitous mayhem.
Starring Keanu Reeves, Diane Lane and John Hawkes. Directed by Brian Robbins. Rated PG-13. Tinseltown, Feather River Cinemas, Paradise Cinema 7.
The title of this Keanu Reeves vehicle is a bit deceptive—while it desperately wants to play hardball with its vaguely explored depiction of inner-city squalor and menace, it is too limp-wristed to be considered anything other than softball.
That’s not to say that Hardball is a bad movie; it’s just that it doesn’t have the courage to sit down and figure out what kind of game it actually wants to play. Ostensibly “based on a true story,” it has Keanu returning to the “redeemable loser” character that he seems to be relying on quite a bit lately (see: The Replacements and Sweet November). This time around he’s an alcoholic (so as to give him a reason to look apathetic) ticket-scalper named Conor O’Neill, who is perpetually only a few steps ahead of a handful of bookies that he owes some serious money to.
Desperate for money, he agrees to coach an inner-city youth baseball team that plays in the desperate shadows of burned-out tenements. Of course, the kids are a motley assortment of “characters.” That’s right, Mighty Ducks in the Hood, only with baseball bats.
It’s all pretty much what you’d expect—Conor resists the charms of the team at first, experiences an epiphany, and succumbs to his true responsibilities as the team swings its way to the climactic championship game.
Apparently, since we’ve all seen this game before, the director doesn’t even feel the need to show the team’s progression from disorganized band to one of the best teams in the city—one moment they’re squabbling in the field, the next they’re all slammin’ away like mini Sammy Sosas (who makes an extremely brief cameo here).
The major problem here is that while Hardball uses Chicago’s Cabrini Greens setting to establish the desperation of the kids’ situation, it never uses the environment for anything other than a backdrop (aside from a brief trip inside one of the tenements, where Conor glimpses residents huddling around campfires, secured behind chain-link gates to keep the predators out). Just because this movie is rated PG-13 doesn’t mean that it’s not designed to mess with your child’s head.