Is young actress Leelee Sobieski boring or inscrutable? Watching her act is often akin to watching oatmeal cook – long stretches of nothing registering on her pretty placid, expressionless face, with the occasional “bubble” rising from the bottom of the pan when she opens her lips constantly pursed. And these bubbles bear no trace of emotion.
Impenetrable? It’s like going to the movies with Mona Lisa. No smiles, no frowns, you wonder what she’s thinking, if she’s thinking — Mona Leelee.
She’s not as interesting as the main character in her new movie, The Glass House.
Design has rarely been more important for a thriller than for The Glass House. The house in the title is a cliffside Malibu mansion with sharp angles and edges, crisp windows, gleaming steel, and echoing hallways. It’s as scary as any haunted house.
And it’s where Ruby and Rhett, played by Sobieski and Trevor Morgan, are sent to live after their parents are killed in a car crash.
It’s a sterile haven for overly ambitious yuppies, a high-end car dealership (Stellan Skarsgard) and his doctor wife (Diane Lane), the people Ruby and Rhett’s parents have chosen to be their guardians.
The children have to adjust to a new home and a new public school. Adults need to reduce their tastes of new cuisine.
But from the moment brother and sister are locked in the same small bedroom in this multimillion-dollar essay on architectural modernism (1960s), Ruby begins to suspect the new “parents.” They may have money problems. There are hints of “problems” with drugs. And the family’s attorney (Bruce Dern) told Ruby exactly how much the kids had inherited, enough to make her question the motives for fostering them.
Daniel Sackheim, early feature film director, cut his teeth filming NYPD Blue, Law & Order and other TV series. He polishes Wesley Strick’s slick and indulgent script, building suspense in style, playing a Hamlet angle (Ruby studies the big drama of child guilt for not avenging parents at school) and ignoring Strick’s Ruby/ Rhett/Gag of the Glass Slippers (a childish joke that must have walked the page but not the film). Strick also adapted the Scorsese Cape Fear and wrote Final Analysis and rarely gets such a good director to overcome his manipulative and easy failures.
The Glass House is a version of The Stepfather, where a child tries to outwit an evil parent who always seems to be perfectly normal to other adults, from the lawyer and teachers to a social worker (Kathy Baker). The film builds coolly from a chilling opening to a crisp, smart finale with efficiency, technical precision and minimal fuss.
Sobieski’s flaws are more effectively hidden here than in any of his other films, including Joy Ride, which comes out later in the fall. Good editing, especially in the film’s final scenes, shortens her moments on camera so she can seem to achieve feelings of fury and dread.
For real acting, you have to watch Lane and Skarsgard. Lane goes from coldly conspiratorial to wounded ambulant and, in one moving scene, makes us realize that she realizes what she’s done.
But the biggest kudos have to go to Jon Gary Steele, the production designer. He designed sets for Total Recall and was artistic director for When Harry Met Sally. The Glass House is his baby, and thanks to him, the main character almost walks away with the film.