John (Jack Reynor) comes home one morning to find his mother Jean (Toni Collette) even more attached to her bed than usual. She’s overdosed on alcohol and is unconscious. As John bursts into the room and sees the tragic scene before him, no music emphasises the drama of the moment, and as John bundles his mother into his taxi cab and drives off, the camera remains inside their house, the car’s movement barely visible through the net curtains.
Despite its title, Glassland is less a shattering drama than an encroaching, unsettling picture of dour suburban Dublin life, albeit one with a more morally robust protagonist than this type of picture is generally given. Reynor’s engaging stillness is a rare quality, a star power effortlessly submerged into ordinary character, and next to Collette’s raw, wild performance, it makes Gerard Barrett’s second feature one with a startlingly lively grasp.
John is an earnest young man, typically laddish around best friend Shane (Will Poulter), but generally reserved and empathetic, only unleashing his anger when things with his mother become that bit too difficult. When he shouts at Jean, in one of the film’s most arresting scenes, Reynor’s subtle playing unpacks a mixture of that anger and a tough sense that this violent language is the only way of getting through to a woman who communicates most frequently on that level. Barrett’s deft, cautious directing allows the audience intimacy with the limited cast of characters while lurking warily on the edge of rooms, framings often making our distance from them crystal clear.
While John’s struggles to help his mother make for an involving thread, the connected narrative of criminality that John has to undertake under cover of night using his taxi feels less robust and rather murky in its conception. What it does underscore is John’s innate goodness, though Reynor does a beautiful job of making this evident through his playing of everyday movements and reactions, and certainly didn’t need the late moment involving Shane’s estranged family to emphasise his virtuous nature even further.
In what may well be remembered as Glassland’s signature scene, mother and son dance to Soft Cell’s ‘Tainted Love’ – a pointed musical choice, to be sure, but made even more crushing by Barrett’s command of filmmaking. First it plays non-diegetically, song booming over the images, and the pair dancing in warm colour, a joyful moment. Then, a sharp cut, and the music withdraws, playing directly from the record player, a muted, damper tune to match the greyer image and the disconnected pair. This is the reality of their lives, but that moment lost inside Jean’s alcohol-infused headspace makes it clear exactly what nectar John is having to drag her from. In that sharp cut, the glass does shatter, and the shards really hurt.
Glassland is available on VOD now and on DVD from 10 August.