Towards the end of Stacie Passon’s exquisite adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” there’s a small yet poignant moment when Mary Catherine Blackwood (Taissa Farmiga) can be seen putting together a ceramic sugar pot that’s fallen on the ground, putting it back together without any glue. The pot holds, with the cracks all still complementary and fitting smugly into place, yet Merricat, as her sister Constance (Alexandra Daddario) is known to call her, knows the fissures remain, choosing to ignore them rather that try to fix them permanently and risk breaking the pot again in the process. As perfectly preserved as the Blackwood house that sits at the top of the hill is, the pot is hardly the only thing that’s broken in it, with the death of Merricat and Constance’s father six years prior alongside the poisoning of their uncle Julian (Crispin Glover), and the sisters long thought by the town to be the ones responsible.
Their culpability is never of much concern in “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” which instead is far more fascinated in how Merricat and Constance have come to protect each other from the angry mob below. While Merricat forces herself to venture into town for supplies on Tuesdays, nailing down a routine to ensure the least social interaction is possible, Constance has created her own world inside the palatial house that she controls to a severe degree, whether it’s where a dish is placed on the dinner table or what her still-living uncle Julian might say in the event a social caller comes by. Despite completely different temperaments, this arrangement has worked for some time until the arrival of cousin Charles (Sebastian Stan), who you just know will upset the balance of things as soon as Constance squeals with delight, “He looks just like father!”
The Blackwood sisters aren’t the only ones meticulously building a world of their own, and as dark as “We Always Lived in the Castle” gets, you want to stay inside the one Passon has created for as long as possible, drawing on gorgeous quasi-Gothic production design from Anna Rackard and evocative cinematography from Piers McGrail that luxuriates in inky blacks to create the experience of having lives steeped in tragedy that nonetheless have the benefits of being their own. At some point, you realize the ornate dresses that Constance wears aren’t meant to blend into the wallpaper so much as amplify how every room seems to bend to her will and as ably as Passon worked through the power dynamics between an escort and a client both seeking something beyond their ordinary lives in her brilliant debut “Concussion,” she and screenwriter Mark Kruger walk a fine line of showing a battle of wills between sisters where their love for each other is never questioned, illuminating their strengths rather than weaknesses.
Farmiga and Daddario both give the sisters their all, their expressive eyes and porcelain features never utilized better visually, but summoning ferocious passion underneath, making every scene teeter on the edge of explosion. When things finally do boil over, Passon lets it smolder rather than combust, allowing the film’s sensations stick with you as if covered in sweat and although “We Have Always Lived in the Castle” was always a tinderbox, the director brings gasoline-soaked matches. It’s a house on fire you won’t be able to take your eyes off of.