Netflix Now: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (2019) - Reviewed

Shirley Jackson is experiencing a bit of a resurgence in recent years, largely thanks to Netflix. Between Mike Flanagan’s anthology series based on her novels and now this, they seem to be cornering the market on all things Jackson. To be clear, We Have Always Lived in the Castle isn’t a Netflix exclusive. It had a quiet premiere at the LA Film Festival last year and a very small release in May of this year. But in providing it to the masses this week, Netflix has effectively given the film its widest release yet.

Starring Taissa Farmiga, Alexandra Daddario, Crispin Glover and Sebastian Stan, We Have Always Lived in the Castle follows The Blackwood Sisters and their Uncle Julian. The sisters live in isolation at their mansion after Constance (Daddario) is acquitted of the deaths of their parents. Merricat (Farmiga) spends her time placing magic items and totems around the estate to keep out evil forces (in this case, town folk who despise and fear the family). One day, their cousin Charles (Stan) arrives, seemingly out of nowhere. As his fuzzy motives (is he here to take Constance back out in the world? Is he here for the family’s fortune?) become clearer, he threatens to disrupt the life of solitude Merricat has built for her family.

Looking at the film’s poster, one could be forgiven for thinking it might have the pacing and tone of Netflix’s Hill House series. The marketing is very clearly trying to ape that aesthetic because of the show’s massive success. However, where Flanagan chose to adapt Jackson’s work pretty loosely, taking a more serious and languid approach, director Stacie Passon clearly wants her film to feel as close to a Jackson novel as possible. All the hallmarks are there, the slightly supernatural atmosphere, the “whodunnit?” storytelling and arch dialogue and music. It all comes together to create a well crafted mystery that would be worthy if not for the complete lack of dramatic tension.

Passon’s direction is quite good, echoing early-to-mid period Tim Burton. She dresses her actors and sets in all the appropriate ways. Those actors play their roles with the right amount of winking at the camera. Farmiga is very good as the outcast loner, running around town with hunched shoulder, trying to finish her errands without raising the town folks’ ire. Sebastian Stan gives what might be his best performance yet as Charles. He’s charming and slimy in all the right ways. It’s really something to see him with so much personality after most of his career has been spent brooding as Bucky in the MCU. There’s just nothing in the script or pacing that makes any of what the actors are doing interesting. They can’t help but feel like caricatures because the film never lets them out of their boxes.

Jackson’s prose is fun because she builds her world around familial relationships and gets you to care about the people she’s writing about. The mystery around their motives is what makes them and the work so compelling. At the risk of leaning too hard on Mike Flanagan (his show was the most recent adaptation until now), he got that. Even when his show was a bit more morose and self serious, he understood the tension that came with not knowing where these characters you were falling in love with were coming from. Or where they were going. Jackson’s mysteries are all about the the intimacy of getting into a character’s head and understanding them fundamental level.

This does none of that. It’s a technically well made thriller without any of the thrills. You never second guess anyone’s motivations. As soon as Charles arrives, you get his game. While the film does have a spooky atmosphere, it doesn’t fully commit to that style beneath it’s look. There’s no presence to the film on any level deeper than its look. You should never feel like you’re killing time when watching a film- especially a thriller. We Have Always Lived in the Castle commits that cardinal sin and never recovers from it. You feel yourself mentally tapping your foot as the film crawls to its inevitable conclusion. 

Great performances, good direction and wonderful set design can’t save this one. It’s a rote, listless journey and misses out on everything that makes Shirley Jackson one of the best mystery writers there ever was. 

--Brandon Streussnig