Review: ‘Castle in the Ground,’ starring Alex Wolff, Imogen Poots, Tom Cullen, Keir Gilchrist and Neve Campbell

May 15, 2020

by Carla Hay

Tom Cullen, Imogen Poots and Alex Wolff in “Castle in the Ground” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Castle in the Ground”

Directed by Joey Klein

Culture Representation: Taking place in Sudbury, Ontario, in 2012, the drama “Castle in the Ground” has a nearly all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 19-year-old straight-laced guy becomes addicted to opioids after getting involved with a female opioid addict and her problems with drug dealers and other criminals.

Culture Audience: “Castle in the Ground” will appeal primarily to people who like watching grim stories about drug addiction.

Alex Wolff in “Castle in the Ground” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

With numerous documentaries and scripted movies being made about drug addiction, there really isn’t a lot of mystery in showing how a seemingly straight-laced, middle-class young person can go from having a promising future to being a drug addict. “Castle in the Ground” (written and directed by Joey Klein) is not an innovative or particularly well-paced film, but a nuanced performance by Alex Wolff makes the movie worth a look for people who are interested in seeing yet another “wasted youth” story.

“Castle in the Ground” begins with 19-year-old Henry Fine (played by Wolff) going through the ritual of crushing a prescribed opioid pill and putting it in food that he serves to his bed-ridden mother Rebecca Fine (played by Neve Campbell), who has an illness that’s not explicitly stated but it’s implied to be cancer. Henry and his single mother (who are the only people living in their apartment in the Canadian city of Sudbury) are so close that he often sleeps in the same bed with her to be a comforting presence. (Henry’s father is neither seen nor mentioned in the film.)

Henry has chosen to delay going to college until his mother “gets well.” And he sincerely believes that she will recover from her illness. But there are signs that he’s also fearing the worst, because he’s begun praying in Hebrew. His mother somewhat teases Henry that she hasn’t seen him openly pray in years.

After a doctor’s appointment, Rebecca tells Henry the bad news that her health situation has gone through another “relapse,” and that they have to prepare for every possible outcome, including her death. He is in complete denial and doesn’t even want to think about his mother dying. Henry gets very upset when she tells him that after her death, she wants Henry to live with his Uncle Yosef and his wife, and the arrangements have already been made.

Meanwhile, a new neighbor has moved in directly across the hall from Henry and Rebecca. Details about the new neighbor are revealed in bits and pieces, as Henry sometimes looks through his apartment’s peephole to observe what’s going on at the apartment across from his. His neighbor (played by Imogen Poots) is a woman who’s about 10 years older than he is, and she likes to play music loud enough that Henry and his mother can hear it in their apartment. She also has a few men visiting her, whom she greets warmly when she answers the door.

One evening, while Henry is having dinner with his mother, his girlfriend Rachel (played by Star Slade) texts him. His mother asks Henry to tell Rachel that she’s interrupting their dinner. But because he wants to talk to Rachel, he takes the conversation with her out in the apartment hallway.

While Henry is on the phone with Rachel, a young man named Stevie (played by Kiowa Gordon) stops by the neighbor’s apartment and introduces himself. Stevie asks if Henry is someone named Polo Boy. Henry says no and tells him that his name is Henry. Before Stevie goes into the apartment, Henry politely asks Stevie to tell the friend who lives there to turn down the music.

Henry then meets up with Rachel for a date, which they spend at an arcade. When he gets home, he hears loud music again from the neighbor’s apartment, so he looks through the peephole and sees something bizarre: A tall man, wearing a face mask of a baby, is knocking on the door.

When the door is opened, the man barges in, and there’s the distinct sound of a woman’s scream and a physical fight. It sounds like a crime in progress, but it could also a prank, so Henry doesn’t call 911 or check to see if the neighbor is in danger or not. It’s revealed later in the movie what that incident was all about.

The next day, Henry is at the pharmacy to pick up some medication for his mother. He sees the mystery neighbor woman arguing with the pharmacist, who has refused to fill a prescription for her and threatens to call the police. The neighbor says that her phone is broken and angrily accuses the pharmacist of being rude and unfairly “profiling” her. It’s an obvious sign that the woman has a drug problem and is trying to fill a fraudulent prescription.

After this heated exchange, the neighbor walks away in a huff, while Henry gets the medication for his mother. As he’s about to leave, he sees the neighbor stealing candy from one of the pharmacy shelves. Henry introduces himself and asks her if she’s doing all right because he heard a scuffle in her apartment the night before.

She tells Henry that what he heard was no big deal, and she introduces herself as Ana. She’s also very agitated, and complains to Henry that pharmacies “hook you … and then fuck up your life.” And if it weren’t obvious enough that she’s a desperate junkie, Ana then asks Henry if she could borrow $40. When he tells her that he has no cash with him, she asks to borrow $20. He tells her the same answer.

Ana asks Henry what he was doing at the pharmacy, and he tells her that he was picking up allergy medication for his sick mother. The look on her face tells viewers that she knows Henry is probably lying, and his access to pain medication might be useful to her. Henry mentions that Ana sometimes plays music too loud, and he nicely asks her if she could turn down the music since his mother is sick.

Ana agrees, but then says since she’ll do that favor for him, she needs a favor from Henry. Ana asks Henry if she could borrow his cell phone and if he could give her a ride to somewhere she needs to go. Although Henry has some initial reservations about this obviously shady person, he seems fascinated and somewhat attracted to Ana, so he says yes to her requests.

When Ana is on the phone, she makes angry calls that indicate she’s probably trying to get in touch with someone who can give her drugs. Ana and Henry drive to an abandoned house, and when he gets tired of waiting for her, he goes into the house to see what’s going on. Henry tells Ana that he has to go, but she begs him to give her a few more minutes.

She then calls her doctor to refill her oxy prescription, since she’s out of methadone. The doctor refuses. So now that it’s been made clear that Ana is a drug addict, Henry has the choice to avoid her or get involved with her. It’s pretty obvious from the way she easily manipulated him what his choice will eventually be.

Shortly after Henry and Ana meet for the first time at the pharmacy, tragedy strikes: Henry’s mother dies in a way that won’t be revealed in this review, but it’s enough to say that he blames himself for her death. Henry is understandably grief-stricken and depressed. He also breaks up with his girlfriend Rachel, since she will be going away to college.

Alone and despondent, Henry is staying in the apartment with no visible means of income. However, viewers can assume that he might have gotten an inheritance from his mother, because Henry refuses an offer from his Uncle Yosef (played by Joseph Ziegler) to live with him and his wife.

When Henry goes through his mother’s belongings, he inevitably sees her bottles of medication. He continues the ritual of crushing the pills, but this time, he’s the one taking the drugs. And when he goes over to visit Ana at her place, she finds out that Henry has been getting high on his mother’s medication, which he ends up sharing with Ana.

The rest of the movie follows Henry’s downward spiral, as he gets more and more involved in Ana’s dangerous games. She’s constantly broke, so she owes drug dealers money, and she’s always thinking up ways to get money for drugs.

Ana has a job as a bartender at a local restaurant/bar, but she also gets money from her enabling mother, who pays for Ana’s rent. Ana’s mother is neither seen nor heard in the movie, but Ana frequently communicates with her worried mother by phone. Ana’s father is not seen or mentioned in the story.

As the more experienced drug user, Ana also gives Henry advice on what she considers to be the best way to use opioids. She doesn’t have a car, so Henry essentially because her willing chauffeur. Henry lets Ana use his cell phone, and eventually he gives her his dead mother’s cell phone, because Ana says that her phone is “busted” and she can’t afford a new one right now. (More likely, she’s stopped paying her cell phone bill.)

Ana constantly seems to be hiding from people who are looking for her, but she downplays any threats to their safety. However, Henry can’t ignore it when he and Ana start getting followed by men in a mysterious white van. And she also shows signs of paranoia that someone could try to break into her apartment while she’s gone, which is why she sometimes stays at Henry’s place.

Henry finds out that Ana’s main drug connection is a young dealer named Richard (played by Keir Gilchrist), who goes by the name Polo Boy because he used to wear preppy shirts with polo logos. Ana used to babysit Polo Boy, so she’s sometimes taunts him about his youth and tells him that he’s an “amateur” drug dealer who doesn’t have what it take to be in the big leagues.

However, Ana also offers sexual favors to Polo Boy when she can’t pay for the drugs that she wants. She makes this type of offer right in front of Henry—which is an indication that she doesn’t care if Henry knows how far she’s willing to go to get drugs. In a private conversation with Polo Boy and Henry, Polo Boy warns him about Ana: “She will sell your soul for something … that’s probably going to kill her.”

There’s also a fellow opioid addict named Jimmy (played by Tom Cullen), who’s close to Stevie and is part of Rachel’s circle of druggie friends. And this isn’t a harmless group: Jimmy, other clique members and the drug dealers they encounter carry guns and aren’t afraid to use them.

“Castle in the Ground” has some suspenseful moments, but much of the film realistically captures the foggy-minded, sluggish pace of people in the throes of opioid addiction, when there are long pauses in conversations, frequent nodding out, and difficulty focusing or doing simple things such as getting out of bed.  People should not expect this movie to have a lot of non-stop adrenaline-pumping action where the drug addicts careen from one dangerous situation to the next. There are some elements of that in the story, but “Castle in the Ground” is more of a character study than a crime thriller.

And this movie also isn’t one where the addicts are involved in moving large quantities of dope. Instead, “Castle in the Ground” is a microcosm of how addiction affects young, middle-class white people, who usually get sentenced to rehab instead of prison if they’re convicted of possession of drugs in small, personal quantities. The racial disparity in how drug addicts are treated by law enforcement is probably why police officers are nowhere to be seen in this movie, even though Ana and Henry go to a well-known drug house in the neighborhood and they hang out with gun-toting drug users.

There is no real backstory for Ana, other than she’s been a drug addict for a number of years. Because Ana is such a liar and a manipulator and because very little is known about her background, the movie gives no indication if she was always an untrustworthy person or if she turned into a habitual liar because of her drug addiction. Poots gives a good performance, but the character is the type of “dishonest and flaky” junkie who’s been seen before in many other movies and TV shows about drug addiction.

Ana might be a lost cause for rehab and redemption, but is Henry? Wolff does a very effective portrayal of someone whose life has changed for the worse in a short period of time. One of the strong points of “Castle in the Ground” is that the movie shows how quickly addiction can take over people’s lives.

Henry’s co-dependent relationship with his mother also explains why he gravitated to getting involved with Ana, another “sick” person whom he wants to “take care” of because he thinks she’s incapable of fully taking care of herself. And if that parallel isn’t made clear enough, toward the end of the film, Ana starts wearing a dress that used to be owned by Henry’s dead mother. Ana admits to Henry that she took the dress after his mother died, but he doesn’t object to her wearing it. It’s a haunting and disturbing image, indicating that Henry has to overcome other issues besides drug addiction in order to have a healthy life.

Gravitas Ventures released “Castle in the Ground” on digital and VOD on May 15, 2020.