Eighteen year old awkward introvert Mary Katherine "Merricat" Blackwood (Taissa Farmiga) lives on the family estate with her beautiful sister Constance (Alexandra Daddario) and their ailing uncle Julian (Crispin Glover). Neither sister ever leaves the house. Except on Tuesdays when Merricat ventures into the village to shop for groceries. Only to be invariably taunted and harassed by locals. Six years ago the court cleared Constance on a murder charge for allegedly poisoning her parents. The locals believe she got away with murder and so try their utmost to drive the Blackwoods away. To keep her family safe from evil Merricat has taken to burying precious items around the grounds as part of her magic spells. Yet her efforts fail to ward off a visit from handsome cousin Charles (Sebastian Stan). He immediately charms Constance leaving a rattled Merricat struggling to retain her hold on the family.
Written in 1962 We Have Always Lived in the Castle was the last mystery novel penned by Shirley Jackson, author of the seminal The Haunting of Hill House ( the basis for both Robert Wise's excellent horror film The Haunting (1963) and the acclaimed 2018 Netflix miniseries) and chilling short story The Lottery. As is the case with a lot of Jackson's work, including Hill House, the plot hinges on a repressed, neurotic, deceptively frail young anti-heroine whose psychosis grows to exert a troubling hold upon those that surround her; particularly family members. Here the film portrays the Blackwood clan as prisoners, not just in their own home but of their own fears, failed dreams and also Merricat's arrested development and fierce resistance to change.
Mimicking the style and tone of Forties psycho-dramas like Rebecca (1940) or Leave Her to Heaven (1945) the film exudes a certain classic doom-laden romance with its fetid decor, chiaroscuro cinematography by Piers McGrail and Alexandra Daddario's retro-forties glamour. Stacie Passon's precise, almost fastidious direction mirrors Taissa Farmiga's nimble evocation of a brittle introvert blurring the line between reality and her own strange fantasy world. Similarly the oft-underrated Daddario ably hints at something more troubling lurking beneath Constance's warm maternal facade and gleaming ever-present smile. Crispin Glover too delivers his most subdued, grounded and affecting turn in years as the pitiful Julian, forever yearning to finish his great memoir.
For all the occasional frustrating ambiguities of its plot the film makes clear a kind of collective insanity has taken root within the Blackwood family. It is briefly punctured by the brusque masculinity of Sebastian Stan as Charles. He slips into the role vacated by the girls' late father and seems set to re-enact a cycle of oppression, abuse and eventually retribution. Even so for all their obsessive-possessive behaviour the Blackwoods are ultimately less disturbing than the mob "justice" that erupts in the third act. Filmed in Ireland, with a gloomy beauty that mirrors the haunted psyches of its protagonists, We Have Always Lived in the Castle arguably captures the tone of Forties psycho-drama so precisely it skirts close to parody. Which may alienate some viewers. For all the skillfulness of its direction, script and performances the film curiously lacks suspense and dread. Its sense of paranoia is almost playful, skewing closer to a young adult novel adaptation than the vice-like grip of other Jackson adaptations. It is a polished, compelling effort but perhaps not quite as unsettling as it ought to be.