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Glasses half empty 

by Ed Symkus

People who live in glass houses... oh, never mind. Truth is, the worn-out proverb doesn't have anything to do with the goings-on in this thriller. Yes, it has a few problems, but this film also has an abundant supply of high tension and plot twists that will keep anyone willing to go along for the ride quite riveted.

The film's title does actually have two meanings. Most of the action takes place in the home -- the house -- of Erin and Terry Glass (Diane Lane and Stellan Skarsgard). It's an ultra-modern structure built up in the hills of Malibu, with spacious rooms galore and, yes, lots of glass. It's into this home that young Ruby (Leelee Sobieski, doing very well in handling her first lead role of this size) and her kid brother Rhett (Trevor Morgan) move after their parents are killed in a fiery car wreck that's only seen briefly and in flashback. The Glasses -- well-off, respected -- were their parents' best friends before moving off to this fancy mansion and kind of losing touch. But seeing as there's no one else to look after the kids -- their reclusive Uncle Jack (Chris Noth) makes it to the funeral, then vanishes again -- the Glasses, with no kids of their own, agree to become their guardians.

So despite the fact that Ruby is pulled out of her everyday life, loses all of her friends with this move out of town, and has to start all over again in a new school, it looks as if life might be okay for her and her brother. The Glasses seem nice -- there are new clothes for her, new video games for him -- but what's up with having to share a bedroom? It's temporary, they're told, but this is a huge house; call this glitch number one. Stranger still, Ruby has been told by her parents' estate lawyer (Bruce Dern, good in the part, but not given enough to do) that she and her brother are now worth about $4 million.

Note, though, in the first of the film's perhaps excessive foreshadowings, a strange look passes over Dern's face just as he realizes Skarsgard has walked into the room. That's the only clue that will be revealed here, since the film's effectiveness is based on how many times and how many different ways it can fool the viewer into thinking or wondering about one thing, then having that same thing resolved in a whole new way.

Oh, there are hints galore, too many of them in the end, since a good number of them are red herrings. But it's not very long before Ruby, and any attentive viewers, realize that something is amiss in this new place and with these new people. There are very strange phone calls, there are some not all that appropriate brushings of her body by Terry's hands, and there's obviously something wrong, something involving big money, at his workplace. Add a medicine cabinet full of morphine and Demerol in the upstairs bathroom, along with one scene of a bleary-eyed, obviously strung-out Erin, and one has to think about what these kids, without any control over the matter, have become involved in.

While the script never really lets on what's happening, at least in the first half of the film, it all turns into a nicely stylish pot-boiler in which it's hard to know how much is being imagined by Ruby and how much of it is actually a plan against her and her brother. The extremely effective and unnerving musical score by Christopher Young pretty much points its finger directly at Terry, labeling him a bad guy through and through. And by suggesting that it rains every single night in Malibu, there's always the feeling that these kids are trapped in the big house. And as the tension level gets higher, the mystery gets deeper.

There are a couple of instances where the film loses its grip on the audience, such as when Ruby grabs her brother and takes off in one of Terry's snazzy cars and an unnecessarily cliched big pre-ending before the real ending. But it almost always comes roaring back, either with some fine acting -- there's a terrific and frightening interchange between Sobieski and Skarsgard -- or unexpected writing ingredients, including one very funny nod to The Blair Witch Project and the best use of the word "malfeasance" since Frances McDormand uttered it in Fargo.

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