Castle in the Ground Review: An unnerving look into the opioid epidemic that’ll leave viewers shook
The sophomore feature from writer/director Joey Klein, Castle in the Ground, is a harsh and undaunting look into the opioid crisis that rattles your cage through unnerving performances from talented young cast.
The film follows Henry (Alex Wolff) – a teen who cares for his ailing mother (Neve Campbell) in their tiny apartment. After Henry’s mother passes away after overdosing on her medication, he ends up in a downward spiral of depression and ends up befriending his charismatic, but troubled neighbor Ana (Imogen Poots). Slowly becoming dependent on using his mother’s leftover medication, Henry becomes consumed by a world of addiction and violence as Ana’s bad relationships come to a head and his small town is taken hold by the growing opioid epidemic.
Klein captures the slow, destructive nature of drug dependency and illness perfectly through Henry’s story and it’s hits some darkly real beats that create this horrific realism. Right from the start, it’s easy to connect yourself to Henry’s love for his mother as she’s dying and his struggles to accept the fact that she’s likely not going to get better. It’s a hard truth, in a film of hard truths, that’s painful and made even more emotional through the great relationship building that takes place in the first act. Every time Henry always had his mother’s best interests in mind and his mother lovingly calls him doctor, it’s hard not to connect to their pain and struggles and it’s what makes their grim reality so heartbreaking. The film’s showing of drug dependency is even more horrifyingly real as Henry’s turn to drugs to ease the pain and Ana’s deceptive attitude are tough to watch, but tough to turn away from.
It’s legitimately impressive to see Klein show horrors of drug dependency through character actions and attitudes rather than utilize the shock of anyone doing drugs. Henry is initially much quieter and not very confrontational, but that all changes once his depression turns him towards opioid use and it’s actually kind of gut-wrenching to see. It’s truly like watching someone in a downward spiral and even though his “tough guy” act can get kind of frustrating and annoying; Wolff keeps it very real. He makes Henry losing his mom as soul-crushing as it should be, given what happens, and his arc really hits because of where he’s at by the end of film and where his “friendship” with Ana takes him to. Watching Wolff’s career thus far has been great and his heart-breaking and shaky performance here is easily a high point for him.
Even better is Poots, who’s also having one hell of breakout, as she makes Ana’s dependency very believable and gives her a slight charm that keeps her from being totally unlikable. At one point, a character describes Ana as someone who would sell someone’s soul for even the smallest and insignificant things. Poots sells this perfectly with how she showcases Ana’s way of doing “favors” for people so that she can guilt them into doing things for her. Every second she’s on-screen, you can feel how on-edge she is and how her drug dependency has led her to make choices that catches the attention of the wrong people. It’s even more interesting that Ana is someone attempting to recovery from her addiction, but constantly failing and faltering at the opportunity of another high. Poots is quickly becoming a rising talent that deserves everyone’s attention and her performance here is easily one of her most compelling and impressive.
The story itself has plenty of compelling moments even if it delves into familiar territory. The moments between Henry and his mother are great because the connection between Wolff and Campbell, who also puts in a stellar performance, is so strong. The other characters, like a lot of Ana’s friends, kind of just fade into the background and I think delving into certain aspects, like the relationship between Stevie (Kiowa Gordon) and Jimmy (Tom Cullen) and Ana’s past issues with her mother, could’ve created a deeper look into how opioid dependency has strained their lives. The whole plot thread of Henry becoming involved in Ana’s drug deal gone wrong does lead to some well-executed moments of suspense and horror but isn’t too far off from what you would expect from that kind of story. Hell, there’s even a white paneled van that never leads to anything good in these kinds of movies.
Personally, Klein also overuses a lot of editing and storytelling techniques that are meant to create more fluidity in the story and shocking suspense but are easy to become desensitized to. There’re way too many “cut to black” moments that are meant to shock viewers when it suddenly cuts back to something shocking or someone’s reaction and I wish he did more sudden jumps like he does with Henry’s mom dying and then cutting to the funeral. The whole “cut to black” thing is super cliché and I found the times where he doesn’t use them to be more effective in creating shocking moments and suspense. There’s also this thing he does with conversation by playing the audio over another sequence that does create more engaging dialogue at times, but it’s also overused and loses its luster overtime.
Crafting a timely depiction of the opioid epidemic that’s bolstered by the excellent performances from Wolff and Poots, Castle in the Ground is a gut-wrenching and unnerving nail-biter. It’s certainly no easy watch, but it’s only because it’s relentless in showing how drug dependency changes people and sends them in a downward spiral – something that makes this film feel horrifying real.