A dark piece of art worth reckoning with on its own merits.
Alex Wolff and Imogen Poots give affecting performances as opioid addicts on different places in their downward spirals in writer/director Joey Klein’s powerfully bleak film Castle in the Ground. Wolff plays Henry, a nineteen-year-old boy who acts as caretaker to his terminally ill mother, Rebecca (Neve Campbell). She is ever-present, the reason he postponed college and a wilting force when Henry is alone with his girlfriend, Rachel (Star Slade). His only escape is through the peephole on his apartment door where he watches the comings and goings of his neighbor, Ana (Poots).
Ana plays her music too loud at all hours and has a steady stream of visitors who pound on her door to get recognized. They are the mystery across the hall for Henry and he uses a chance meeting at the pharmacy to connect with Ana. He feigns indifference but is clearly smitten, and Ana knows what to do with an easy mark. Within moments, she is making calls using Henry’s phone and having him drive her to her dealer’s den to score some Oxycontin. Poots plays Ana with the relentless thunder of charm and desperation of a junkie unable to satisfy her need. She’s smart enough to speak truth about pharmaceutical companies and doctors that hand out opioid prescriptions for the slightest pain, but it’s all an act to serve her overwhelming drive to get high. Poots has been an actor to watch since her debut in the pandemic thriller 28 Weeks Later, but she is barely recognizable in her jet-black hair and porcelain skin, a creature of the night who only rises to score. In Henry’s distorted code of honor, he needs to protect her, but she is his manic-pixie-death-girl. He just can’t see it.
Wolff plays Henry as less than innocent, life hasn’t dealt him those cards, but unavoidably naïve. He is a child among gangsters who are indifferent to his survival. He watches Ana’s door with longing rather than pity because he believes the world beyond it will spare him responsibility. When his mother dies, he shuns the arrangements she’s made for his welfare, refusing to move in with his relatives. Instead he continues his daily routine of mashing painkillers into jelly but he is the only one around to feed it to. More and more he becomes a shadow in Ana’s world, suffering her rejections and returning to her in the hopes of gaining approval. He seeks a maternal figure which she manipulates to the point of wearing Rebecca’s old dresses. Henry wants something Ana can’t provide, even if he’s the last of her companions standing.
With cinematographer Bobby Shore, Klein tries to find some new visual conveyance to the well-worn story of drug addled youth. They eschew the tragic glamor of Trainspotting for a motif reminiscent of teen drama The Perks of Becoming a Wallflower and teen horror film Let Me In. Editor Jorge Weisz uses jump cuts and blackouts to distort linear time to reflect the malaise trauma and drug addiction share. It becomes a powerful shorthand to illustrate Henry’s sorrow and motivation. Flashbacks and dissolves become the stuff of nightmares and monsters.
This is Henry’s film and we rarely leave his side. We see him pray for his mother’s recovery and perform the adult duties while she withers. He is constantly reminded of his goodness, especially by Jimmy (Tom Cullen), a handsome co-conspirator in Ana’s pedestrian drug heist. The narrative derives its tension from our faith in that goodness as Henry’s life decays and his addiction flourishes. We witness Ana manipulate her way into endless chances to recover some humanity but there is a sense of inevitability with her. She would sell anyone for a tiny pill and there’s no recovering from that. Henry still has a chance and whether he takes it or follows Ana to the end is clearly stated in the final shot of the film. It might seem like an open ending, but this film is too honest with itself for that. It may not be Drugstore Cowboy, but it is a dark piece of art worth reckoning with on its own merits.