Wrong house, wrong time

Movie: The Glass House

Our Rating: 3.00

At a time when carnage, pain and grief seem to inhabit the very air we breathe, it's difficult to generate enthusiasm about delving into a Hollywood entertainment that broaches those very topics. It's simply not an escape; nor does it provide much in the way of catharsis. That's why "The Glass House," a competently paced, reasonably engrossing suburban thriller from first-time film director Daniel Sackheim, may get the cold shoulder from critics and audiences.

The first 10 minutes of the film deal with the tragic deaths of thirtysomething married couple Dave (Michael O'Keefe) and Grace Baker (Rita Wilson), their emotional funeral service, and the uncertain future of their orphaned children: high-school student Ruby (Leelee Sobieski) and her little brother, Rhett (Trevor Morgan). Who wants to encounter this sort of plot line at the movies, when familial loss is all over the airwaves?

It's perhaps better to consider the film a contemporary Hansel and Gretel tale that foregoes the woods and the witch. Instead, the children leave their loving family life and all-American neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley for new guardians and ultra-modern digs. Their parents' best friends, Terry Glass (Stellan Skarsgard) and his wife, Erin (Diane Lane), volunteer to care for the kids. Ruby and Rhett are soon relocated to a magnificent, jeweled edifice -- all glass, concrete and shiny steel -- overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the Malibu coast.

"Sweet," Rhett declares as he takes in the spread, which is crammed with art pieces, a home theater, a weight room, and a variety of video-game systems.

The walls of the house are transparent, but the intentions of the Glasses are not. They begin to exhibit some odd behavior: Terry drinks heavily, drives his Jaguar like a madman, appears to make a pass at Ruby and has heated, late-night conversations with tough guys. Meanwhile, Erin eavesdrops and makes odd accusations when she's not trudging around the house like a zombie. Alvin Begleiter (Bruce Dern), the lawyer for the children's estate (valued at $4 million), promises to investigate.

Sackheim, an Emmy-winning TV producer and director, understands the mechanics of suspense, and he demonstrates an apt touch with "The Glass House," a domestic-horror flick with loose ties to "The Stepfather" and "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle." Is Terry -- portrayed by Skarsgard ("Time Code," "Breaking the Waves") with an able mix of charm and menace -- someone to be feared or simply a lush with bad judgment? Is Erin (an M.D.) drugged out or just treating herself for diabetes? Is Ruby on to something or merely overreacting?

"The Glass House" is told mostly from Ruby's point of view, and 18-year-old Sobieski is up to the task. She makes a sympathetic, attractive protagonist, and her transformation from apathy to steely resolve is entirely believable. The film, on the other hand, can be faulted for several detours into melodrama, and for Sackheim's primary modus operandi, which consists of exploiting viewers' fears about endangered children. If there's ever an appropriate time for such tactics, it certainly isn't now.