Castle in the Ground is not a particularly uplifting film to watch during a global pandemic. However, this bleak portrait effectively reminds us of an epidemic that erupted long before coronavirus gobbled up the headlines. It’s a sobering look at the opioid crisis as Henry (Hereditary’s Alex Wolff) spirals down the addictive rabbit hole. The bright Canuck falls in with the wrong crowd and tragically becomes another statistic in an epidemic quietly claiming lives behind COVID’s reign of terror. It’s depressing to see which crises merit attention from the public and elected officials.
Nineteen-year-old Henry falls into his habit easily enough. Writer/director Joey Klein (The Other Half) eschews typical druggie sensationalism as Henry merely samples the stuff on his own. He dives into drugs to ease the pain that consumes him following the death of his mother, Rebecca (Neve Campbell). Addiction and death permeate the apartment long before Henry’s first taste though. Suffering from the painful return of an aggressive cancer, Rebecca begs Henry for painkillers throughout the day. He administers them cautiously but devotedly. He reminds her when she had her previous dose and notes the shortening windows between requests. However, feeding mom’s addiction means keeping her alive.
The sombre atmosphere of their apartment is a hellhole with little hope. Castle in the Ground follows the growing Canadian film preference for dank lighting, depressing reminders of our film scene’s precariousness amidst surging hydro rates. While it proves distracting to wonder why everyone in the film mopes at home with the lights off, the drab palettes accentuate the bleakness of Henry’s tailspin. The dim, chilly frames of the film’s Academy-ratio aesthetic offer little breathing room.
King of the Castle
Rebecca’s death coincides with the arrival of a new neighbour. Across the hall lives Ana (Imogen Poots), a mysterious woman with a constant stream of callers arriving at all hours. The loud music and shady figures add up to bad business, but young guys like Henry can’t help taking an interest, especially after playing caregiver for so long.
Ana is an addict stumbling on the road to recovery. She reveals her self-destructiveness at every turn, asking Henry for money or mootching rides to the sketchiest of drug dens. The young man recognises the signs but the high he gets with Ana feeds a vicious cycle that neither of them need. (Cue robbers, drug dealers, and bad decisions.)
The relationship between Henry and Ana, unfortunately, rings false where the first act of Castle in the Ground proves authentic. However, Wolff admirably captures Henry’s struggle. As with his previous feature The Other Half, which won a well-deserved Best Actress Canadian Screen Award for Tatiana Maslany, Klein favours performance-driven storytelling. Poots aside, he casts the right stars to do justice to this drama rooted in realism. Some strong supporting players, notably Keir Gilchrist and Weekend’s Tom Cullen, lend plausibility to the drug den narrative when Poots’ all-over-the-map turn struggles to carry it.
Castle in the Ground proves a worthy showpiece for Wolff, who anchors the film with an assured low-key performance. His restraint internalises the conflict and scratching the junkie itch that often overwhelms portraits of addiction. Depression and mental illness are contributing factors to the opioid epidemic, and Wolff’s low-key turn invites deeper consideration of Henry’s despair.