Dealing with a beloved relative or friend who’s an addict is a double-edged sword. Common sense dictates that if an addict is mad at you, you’re probably helping them get better, but if they’re happy when they’re around you, you’re probably their enabler. If you want your loved one to be happy and jolly all the time, you will more than likely have to accept that they will eventually kill themselves via their drug of choice. If you want to save them, you will have to turn yourself into a willing receptacle for all of their hate and bitterness.
That’s the horrible situation that modest and sorrowful taxi driver John (Jack Reynor) finds himself dealing with, in the somber and profoundly effective Irish drama “Glassland,” as he tries to find a way to keep his hopelessly alcoholic mother Jean (Toni Collette) away from booze in order to save her liver, and her life.
In his second feature, writer/director Gerard Barrett lulls us into John’s uneventful day-to-day life during the first ten minutes. John drives his customers around Dublin, hangs out with his abrasive best friend Shane (Will Poulter), and spends his nights lethargically watching TV alone in his room. John’s humdrum existence is occasionally shattered by Jean’s self-destructive alcoholism. The first time we meet Jean, she’s found unconscious in a puddle of her own vomit by John. The ensuing hospital scene where nurses work around the clock to save Jean’s life is directed by Barrett in such a raw and unflinching way, that it might be hard for anyone who had to deal with a similar situation in real life to get through it.
Jean’s saved this time around, but her doctor warns John that she will not live long if she doesn’t stop drinking. John tries everything from hiding Jean’s booze to threatening to cut her off from his life, but nothing seems to work. One faint glimmer of hope comes in the form of an expensive treatment center, recommended by Jean’s refreshingly empathetic AA sponsor (Ben Wheatley regular Michael Smiley), but in order for John to pay for it, he has to get in bed with some despicable characters and willingly become part of a criminal enterprise that brutalizes the innocent and the vulnerable.
Is destroying the lives of strangers a fair compromise for saving a beloved member of one’s immediate family? One of the most invigorating aspects of Barrett’s approach to a premise that’s ripe for manipulative melodrama is that he doesn’t offer any black and white moral platitudes regarding John’s predicament. All we see is a good man in a desperate situation, and it’s up to the audience to dole out any judgment to the character, or to perhaps realize that our own imperfect humanity disqualifies us of judging his actions in the first place. Glassland’s third act involves an extremely hard moral choice for John, and even if we rejoice at the possibility that he might be able to eventually save his soul, we’re also fully aware of the terrible consequences for him to do so. No good deed goes unpunished.
As dour as Glassland’s overall tone is, it’s not a misrerabilist experience like many melodramas that deal with addiction. As much as Barrett doesn’t flinch away from the sadness that Jean’s alcoholism causes John to be suffocated by, he makes sure to let the audience see why John goes to such extremes to save his mother in the first place. A wonderful scene during the midpoint of the film shows Jean dancing happily with her son, and for a moment we can see hope in John’s eyes, as if he’s witnessing a quick glimpse of how wonderful his mother used be when he was a child. He wants to hang on to that moment because he knows it won’t last long.
What follows that sequence is a devastating monologue delivered with great care and respect by Collette, as Jean tries to explain to her son the hardships that led to her alcoholism. After listing a series of disappointments and heartbreaks in her life, Jean concludes her speech talking about a “friend” that she finally found, a friend that wouldn’t judge her, tell her that she’s worthless, or leave her.
The monologue is executed using only a fairly flat middle shot, but it shows the power of great writing and acting in cinema, since it’s more heart wrenching than many stylish and expensive prestige dramas. Collette delivers one of the best performances of her already impressive career in “Glassland.” Apparently, her part was shot over six days. Perhaps the lack of a more lenient schedule forced her to approach her character in a more raw and truthful way. Art through adversity, indeed.
On the page, John looks like a fairly passive character, letting the chaos around his life dictate his actions. But Reynor finds subtle ways to externalize John’s pain, until he explodes in a gut-wrenching sequence near the end of the second act. The cinematography by Piers McGrail is appropriately drab and near monochromatic. Even though the handheld look of the film follows in the footsteps of many other similar indies, McGrail doesn’t go overboard with the style by unnecessarily shaking the camera to further accentuate a documentary-like feel.
Glassland was produced in 2014, was released in the U.K. in 2015, but at least as far as US releases goes; it’s the best film of 2016 so far. [A]