Even as “Castle in the Ground” begins to fray and fall apart, Joey Klein’s dour but gripping opioid drama remains believable for how perfectly it dovetails with its grieving protagonist. Like 19-year-old Henry Fine (Alex Wolff) — a nice Jewish boy who lives with his dying mom (Neve Campbell) in a necrotic Sudbury apartment complex — the film is sensitive and mesmeric and oh so close to moments of cathartic beauty. And like 19-year-old Henry Fine — a grieving orphan who inherits his mom’s leftover OxyContin and fentanyl patches after she dies from Hodgkin’s lymphoma (or from an overdose of the treatment she’s been prescribed for it) — Klein’s film grows distressed, unsure of itself, and lost in a trite crime thriller that spirals away from what made it special in the first place.
And yet “Castle in the Ground” is so dour, honest, and devoid of false hope that it often feels as if it couldn’t have gone any other way. In a certain, musty light, that such a promising character is ultimately wasted on such a familiar tale is as much of a feature as it is a bug. The tragic thing about young Henry and so many fine people like him is that they’re cursed to be trapped in movies like this one.
It starts with a title card that tells us the year is 2012, but we’re left to infer what that year meant for many of Canada’s most painstricken people, as Ontario delisted Oxycodone from the province’s drug benefits program and stranded junkies and palliative care patients alike to seek less regulated alternatives. Not that opioids give a shit why anyone needed them in the first place; Henry lives in a building where both kinds of addicts are separated by nothing more than a narrow hallway, and that slim divide is smudged away over the course of this ultra-claustrophobic film as Klein’s 4:3 frames gradually reduce the geography to abstraction.
But “Castle in the Ground” is bittersweet before it’s bereft. The film eases into its crisis like a frog in a pot of boiling water, as the opening 30 minutes are tender and ominous in equal measure (Klein has cited “James White” as a reference point, and his movie burns with the same volatile emotionality). The first thing we see Henry do is lovingly crush his mom’s opioids into a palatable green jelly; the second thing we see him do is wrap tefillin around his forearm and daven against the dust-covered window that separates him from the holy land. It’s an act of desperation more than a show of religious faith (Henry won’t even admit to his mom that he’s praying for her to get better), but the leather strap tied around Henry’s arm is a wrenching reminder of how negligible the difference can be.
Henry and his mom Rebecca share an enviably sweet relationship that’s only soured by the truth of what’s to come: She insists that she’s going to be just fine, but they both know that isn’t true. Wolff is excellent as the spiraling hero, while Campbell makes the most of a thankless role, glazing every moment with maternal grace until her need for drugs roars out like a devil. The same devil who possesses the girl across the hall. Her name is Ana (Imogen Poots), and the way she lives her life is almost comfortingly similar to the way that Rebecca ended hers. Beautiful so long as you can’t smell her breath, and reliant upon the kindness of any stranger who might help with her next score, Ana is a trap that Henry is helpless to avoid.
“Castle in the Ground” is at its most agonizingly humane when it keys into the codependent bond that brings Henry and Ana together. Embodying Ana as a manic pixie scuzz queen who “would sell your soul for something this big that’s probably gonna kill her,” Poots is brilliant in the kind of role that tends to ring hollow in other films. It’s a masterful performance that so fluidly switches between mildewed charm and merciless self-preservation that you can see Ana for who she is but still want to look closer.
The best moments of Klein’s script locate Ana in the larger context of a drug crisis that corrupts the lives it doesn’t end altogether; Ana used to babysit the pipsqueak Oxy dealer (Keir Gilchrist as “Polo Boy”) she now trades sex for drugs, and the fact that he genuinely seems to care about her only makes things worse. This is a movie in which even the most peripheral characters have palpably suffocated inner lives — it’s only the pharmacists, framed out of the picture like the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon, who are reduced to unfeeling avatars.
But Klein, committed to the hard truths of his film in a way that prevents him from mining their full poetic values, eschews a more intimate story for a dead-end crime saga that offers these characters an easy shortcut to hell. It’s a convoluted situation involving Ana, Polo Boy, some guy named Jimmy (Tom Cullen, rescuing a killer performance from a nothing role), and a stolen bag of fake drugs. Klein doesn’t ask us to dwell on the details — all we need to know is that it’s a bad situation that keeps getting worse — and his patient direction allows the tension to grow thick enough that you can’t see through it anyway. None of these people want to hurt each other, but all of them would do it without thinking twice.
While it’s easy to admire “Castle in the Ground” for being so dedicated to the inertia of its downward spiral, we can’t help but grieve for Henry and Ana as they’re flattened into statistics. Addiction can reduce the most complicated of people to the same basic craving, but the truth of that fact isn’t an excuse to elide it; the inevitability of how this story ends isn’t reason enough to skimp over how it gets there. Not when the strange dynamic between Henry and Ana is so full of the rich complexity that opioids are robbing from them.
He sees her through a kaleidoscopic prism of desire (turn it once for an unrequited crush, turn it again for maternal replacement), while she sees him through a peephole of raw need. At one point Henry gives Ana his dead mom’s cell phone, and the first text that he receives from her feels like a message from beyond the grave. It’s a loaded moment of emotional transubstantiation that seems poised to loom over the rest of this wounded movie and tie its bleak ellipses together, but then Henry just changes the contact info, goes to sleep, and buries what little hope he still had for himself. “Castle in the Ground” knows that everything is not going to be okay, but nothing is never that easy to accept in its place.
Gravitas Ventures will release “Castle in the Ground” on VOD on Friday, March 15