In a large mansion just outside of a small town in Vermont lives two young sisters, Mary Katherine “Merricat” (Taissa Farmiga) and Constance (Alexandra Daddario) Blackwood and their ailing Uncle Julian (Crispin Glover). Tragedy struck the sisters six prior when their parents died of arsenic poisoning. The deadly substance was found in the sugar bowl during a family meal and because Constance was the only one at the table to not use sugar in her meal, she was indicted for the murders.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle is based on the Shirley Jackson’s final novel of the same name. While having all the key elements of a mystery, director Stacie Passon’s film is more a character study focusing on themes of the safety of sisterhood and self-imposed alienation.
Six years after the murders, the Blackwood sisters separated themselves from the people they once knew in the neighboring town and confined themselves to borders of their massive estate. Since her acquittal, because she was too pretty to commit murder, Constance has never stepped foot off the property apprehensive because people still believe she is a murderer. Constance is an unlimited source of joy and optimism and always with a smile on her face.
Mary Katherine, on the other hand, is insecure and quiet but loves Constance, her only sister and the only person who actually likes her. For her own personal sanity, Merricat will do whatever it takes to maintain the current state of the mansion and her relationship with Constance and Uncle Julian.
“…sisters separated themselves from the people they once knew in the neighboring town and confined themselves to borders of their massive estate.”
Unfortunately, Merricat is the only one of the three able to go into town purchasing food and supplies. In a constant state of fear for her safety, Merricat resorts to burying coins and personal objects by a secret clearing amongst the trees, she calls “the crater of the moon,” in hopes the spirits will grant her safety amongst the townsfolks.
The Blackwood sisters have very few “friends” in town. Merricat’s journey to town is faced with a steady stream of bullying with gossipy whispers in the background. Her attempts to appease the spirits may have worked in the past, the intensity of the bullying is coming to a breaking point.
As the title implies, Merricat and Constance have locked themselves away in their “castle” finding comfort and safety in one another and choosing to live separate from the outside world as best as possible. Like any good story, We Have Always Lived in the Castle must threaten the status quoted it’s done in the person of cousin Charles (Sebastian Stan).
Charles arrival begins innocently as a family visit to check up on his uncle and cousins, but Charles discovers the slow deterioration of the mansion grounds and takes it upon himself to restore the home to its former prominence. Charles manages to endear himself with Constance creating a budding cousin-on-cousin romance and acting as a surrogate guardian to Merricat punishing her for burying valuable coins, heirlooms, and jewelry in the forest. Here the story focus on the battle of control between Charles and Merricat as Constance stands on the sideline taking both sides.
“…a slow-paced dark tale of family, which is fine if you’re drawn to this type of story…”
Quite frankly, We Have Always Lived in a Castle is less of a mystery and more a character study of the three cousins. Alexandra Daddario is cast perfectly as the beautiful Constance that avoids conflicts through people-pleasing. She will side with the bully Charles against her sister just to maintain the peace. Taissa Farmiga carries most of the heavy lifting of the film as Merricat, the insecure, OCD child forced into adulthood at way too young an age. She was never taught to be an adult and protect the family, she had to figure it out on her own.
I’m most conflicted about Charles, it seems just too easy for Sebastian Stan to play the bad guy looking to marry his cousin and steal the family fortune. Stan’s performance forces you to question whether his initial visit to the mansion was truly one of goodwill and his subtle disagreements with the sisters drove him to become a greedy monster. The film is absolutely unclear about this.
Let’s not forget Crispin Glover as the semi-senile-older uncle. Maybe we’re so used to him playing crazy, eccentric characters that his role as Uncle Julian comes off as a good normal performance and plays as an important piece of the plot.
The best I can say about We Have Always Lived in a Castle is it’s a slow-paced dark tale of family, which is fine if you’re drawn to this type of story. I ultimately enjoyed the film but I would probably think twice about a second viewing.
We Have Always Lived in a Castle (2018) Directed by Stacie Passon. Written by Mark Kruger based on the novel by Shirley Jackson. Starring Taissa Farmiga, Alexandra Daddario, Crispin Glover, Sebastian Stan. We Have Always Lived in a Castle made its world premiere at the 2018 Los Angeles Film Festival.
6 out of 10