OCT 2001

The Glass House

Directed by Daniel Sackheim
Starring Leelee Sobieski, Stellan Skarsgard, Diane Lane

One of the pleasures available from Hollywood movies comes from the way they set up at least one character for us to identify with and live vicariously through for a couple of hours. Suspense thrillers ask us to ally ourselves with the protagonist and then get our pleasure, a bit perversely perhaps, from the fact that we cannot be active in that role. No matter how painfully we might squirm at the sights and sounds of the story onscreen, we cannot affect the preset outcome of the filmed events. Most of the time, however, we know we are safe in our helpless position because the protagonist will triumph by the film’s end without our assistance. At worst we can come away from this experience with a naïve or cynical catharsis about things "turning out okay" despite the feelings of disconnection and powerlessness that many of us experience in the world outside the theater. If one’s lack of agency is more physical than mental/emotional, then this experience might provide genuine psychic relief from that condition. Better still, for those of us with our agency more or less intact both physically and mentally, the path the protagonist follows to his or her happy ending can provide us with insight into changing our own lives.

The Glass House sharply interrogates this issue of powerlessness versus agency by taking a sixteen year old girl (Ruby Baker played by Leelee Sobieski) for its protagonist. In a world controlled by adults, well-meaning authority figures are often quick to step in and make decisions for teens, who routinely rebel against this control. Glass House presents a rite-of-passage story that follows Ruby’s trajectory from rebellion against adult restrictions more or less as a form of entertainment to fighting back because her life depends upon doing so. In the opening sequence of the film we see Ruby and her gang of girlfriends watching a clearly R-rated slasher movie entitled "Prom Nightmare" (perhaps to get a bit of the aforementioned psychic relief). Cut to the next morning and it becomes clear over the family breakfast table that her transgression went beyond seeing the movie without the accompaniment of a parent or guardian: sneaking out at night behind her parents’ backs. A few quickly paced narrative moments later, Ruby arrives home from having sneaked out again to find that her parents have died in a car accident. She won’t have them to rebel against any more.

As it turns out, however, her parents have willed Ruby and her eleven-year-old brother Rhett into the upscale guardianship of Terry and Erin Glass—an opulent car rental agency owner and his pain-clinic MD wife. It quickly becomes clear that Terry and Erin will not have their authority so easily flouted. More gradually, it becomes clear that the couple has ulterior motives for welcoming the young siblings into their extravagantly designed and furnished home. Without giving away too much, these motives revolve around the large trust fund (amassed, the lawyer in charge of administrating it suggests, by hard work and careful planning) that the late Mr. and Mrs. Baker have left for their children.

The corruption and death bred by conspicuous consumption, instead of hard work and careful planning, plays a central role in the world of Terry and Erin Glass. The opulence of their Pacific Coast home is at first stunning and impressive, but quickly begins to appear grossly overwrought—particularly through Ruby’s implied point of view. The narrative is implicitly dominated by her perspective and this enables the film to sharply focus not only on the difference between Ruby and her adult caretakers, but also on the difference five years of age makes in awareness of the roles that money and consumable goods play in the adult world. While Rhett is blindly satisfied with the expensive electronic toys the Glasses shower upon him—things that his parents notably shunned—Ruby is readily suspicious as increasing restrictions are placed upon intangibles like her privacy and freedom of movement. This moves a step further when Ruby begins her indoctrination into car culture through her driver’s education class and is plunged into a nightmarish psychic proximity to her parents’ horrible demise.

The Glass House has an impressive knack for tapping into the details of a sixteen year old girl’s life. In addition to her painful indoctrination into car culture, it touches on her emerging awareness of her sexuality, her desire for privacy, and her need to be listened to and trusted by the people in her world. This last detail is perhaps the film’s most penetrating. Throughout the film Ruby continually attempts to find allies among adults who seem more ready to follow their own socially or privately motivated agendas than to clearly listen and honestly respond to her problems and concerns. The worst of these is Terry Glass himself who follows a fast-moving character arc from apparently sincere concern to predatory creepiness to repellent mercenarism. To eliminate the threat posed by Ruby’s potential adult allies, Terry repeatedly uses his acute awareness of the conventionalized controls placed on young people by adults. In the end he resorts simply to drugging her into stupefied submission because she proves herself too resourceful for less brutal measures.

Ruby’s story is one of such alliances made, broken, and—worse—turned against her. On this point the film links itself to the generic convention of creating spectator alliance with the protagonist. Ruby continuously seeks allies, particularly among adults, who can act on her behalf and help her find her happy ending. In the end, however, her own quick-witted and strong-willed agency saves her from the fate her guardians have planned for her. She does not, however, blindly dismiss or condemn the efforts of her would-be allies. She instead sees them for what they are: (at best) well-intentioned though misguided, or (at worst) piteously self-serving. In what might be the film’s deepest lesson, she comes to an ever-increasing understanding of the system that she is growing up into and becoming entangled in as her plight progresses. Through our brief, vicarious alliance with her from a cup-holder seat perhaps we can also learn, without needing to come so close to getting killed.


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