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150 Films #24: The Castle (1997)

For a number of reasons, I tend not to enjoy movies about “dumb” characters. Topping that list is problem the “wisdom of a simpleton” condescension, where the plainspoken dullard is the only one who can overcome the cynical manipulations of those dang intellectuals. Boy, do I hate that move. Also, I tend to feel bad when characters get mistreated because they’re dumb, either because the filmmaker wants me to feel bad, or because they want me to laugh at the dummy. Finally, I get supremely frustrated when a filmmaker tries to use a character’s ignorance or stupidity as a kind of straw man, vilifying a character through his or her simple-minded (typically narrow-minded) viewpoint.

How does The Castle manage to make a movie centered around a not-very-bright family and get it exactly right? I’ve asked this question every time I’ve watched The Castle—several times since I first saw it seven or eight years ago—and in this essay, I’m forcing myself to come up with an answer.

I think it comes down to a few simple tweaks to the “dumb character” archetypes. The Castle focuses on a loving family living in a small house right next to the airport. Power lines crisscross the backyard, lead taints the groundwater, and plane noise drowns out conversation—but they love their home, the titular castle. The plot hinges on an existential threat to the castle: a large, well-funded company, with the authority of the government, decides to “compulsorily acquire” all the houses in their small subdivision. To save the castle, patriarch Darryl Kerrigan (Michael Caton) decides to fight the compulsory acquisition.

A lesser movie would have structured this conflict as a bunch of shady rich dudes trying to trick a pack of fools, perhaps undervaluing the house or using underhanded means to fight back. It would have had Darryl and his family as eternally shiny-eyed innocents, plowing ahead only because they’re too dumb to see the cynicism and greed of the world. The Castle twists these condescending clichés into a story both funnier and profounder than I’d ever expect.

When Darryl threatens legal action, the air authority increases their check. It’s not that they’re so shady, The Castle argues; it’s that they simply don’t understand what the Kerrigans have can’t be replaced with piles of money. When Darryl refuses the settlement, a shady enforcer shows up and makes veiled threats (this is as underhanded as they ever get); Darryl responds by stealing the wrought-iron gate from the owner of the company. These are not the actions of a dully naïve beacon of truth and justice; they’re the actions of a not-very-bright but righteously pissed off man who’s been threatened.

So, instead of focusing on the exploitation of the dumb-but-righteous hero by cynical, rich meanies, you have a guy willing to fight dirty if the other side fights dirty. You have a guy who’s almost over-the-top in his self-righteousness, even as everyone around him thinks it’s a lost cause (this includes his bumbling lawyer, the hilarious Tiriel Mora). He’s stubborn, not naïve, and he will not accept anyone challenging what he believes as self-evidently just. Darryl is so stubborn that he literally fights all the way to the High Court of Australia, comparing his family to the Aborigines, doggedly pursuing what he sees as the need to right an obvious wrong.

Through the medium of an often silly comedy, The Castle speaks to greater issues affecting Australians (whitey and Aborigine alike), and people the world over: the unchecked government bullying of private citizens, the even more unchecked public-private circle jerk I’ve often complained about, and the setting aside of self-evident truths in favor of powerful special interests. What makes the movie so successful is not the wisdom of its simpleton hero; it’s his dogged pursuit of justice in the face of a problem that affects all individuals to varying degrees. Darryl’s ignorance makes him self-righteous and stubborn, not a dumb punching bag.

Plenty of big laughs come from the Kerrigans’ sheer ecstasy over their perfectly ordinary, blue-collar lives. They love each other, but they also love life, and they’re comically happy with what little they have. Yet, the movie never laughs at them; it laughs with them, understanding that their overjoy with tacky souvenirs and simple meals is merely an exaggeration of how any ordinary person gets through the day without losing sanity: happy to have with they have, instead of unhappy about what they lack. This is key to making the Kerrigans so goddamn lovable—we’re not all of us quite so feeble, but anyone can relate the desire to fight external threats to their cheerful stability.

I feel like this essay doesn’t sell The Castle as funny. That’s not really the goal here; I’m not writing a review to try to convince you to see it. But since I do think this film is criminally under-seen in the U.S., let me just say that it’s a goddamn laugh riot from beginning to end.

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Up Next: Changing Lanes (2002)

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