When I was growing up outside of Dallas, a strange thing would happen when the teachers let us back into the school after recess: the lights would all seem like they were turned off. In fact, the inside looked darker than outside. The blazing Texas sunshine had so blasted our eyes that they would literally have to acclimate back to indoor light.
I experienced a similar sensation watching Gerard Barrett’s Glassland, a harrowing Irish drama of a young man being torn apart by his mother’s destructive alcoholism. Though most of the film takes place indoors in the daytime, the lights always seem turned off; the shadows impervious to the feeble sunlight. Characters drudge their way through opaque blackness as if it emanates directly from their person.
John (Jack Reynor) lives in a meager south Dublin suburb making ends meet as a nighttime taxi driver. The first third of the film largely mimics the staid ennui of his life with long pauses, feeble attempts at conversation with friends and customers and silence and stillness—always the silence and stillness. Occasionally he comes home to find his mother Jean (Toni Collette) in a drunken stupor. More often than not she’s off on a bender. But one day he finds her collapsed on his bed, vomit soaking the sheets and pillows. Though not her first overdose, it proves her most serious. Reality comes crashing down: either she gets into a rehab immediately or she dies. Trouble is, who can afford it?
The biggest flaw in Glassland comes in a third act development wherein John partakes in some poorly explained, enigmatic criminal act for some unnamed, never-revealed gangster. Not only do the details of the crime make no sense — what did the gangster expect him to do when he got there? — but the entire concept of a turn to crime seems to betray the core concept of the film: a pained, desperately brutal depiction of alcoholism. Barrett seems to have taken great pleasure in filling the film with the scenes that would come in-between the standard story beats for such a story: quiet moments of mother and son holding each other, talking to each other, and, in a sequence of sublime defeat and resignation, drinking glasses of wine while dancing to ’80s music. Barrett’s emphasis on such scenes makes the inevitable emotional blowups that much more powerful. The scene in the parking lot of the rehab center where John finally breaks and alternately begs and shames his mother into getting help sears the mind.
I’ve read that Reynor won a Special Jury Award for Acting at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. While his performance centers the film, Collette deserved the recognition. Few are the actors and actresses who can truly disappear into a role; who can truly make us forget that we are looking at a performer acting out lines and stage directions. But Collette vanishes.