Glassland is bleak. It hurts. It hurts all the way through because the topics that it deals with are some of the most unavoidably painful: from alcoholism to Down Syndrome to human trafficking, Gerard Barrett‘s film covers the reality of all of this, depicting the struggle of John (Jack Reynor) to rehabilitate his alcoholic mother and rebuild his family. As the story progresses, John entangles himself with a criminal world in order to try to provide for his mother’s care, and the good-natured character is faces a moral dilemma.

Glassland Movie Review

The movie opens to a black screen and a defeated monologue from John. This monologue is repeated in the middle, and at the end. For the next three minutes of the movie, there is no dialogue. The movie unfurls with slow real time shots with no music, just silence, finger tapping, phone buzzing, breathing, bed creaking, toilet flushing. The stagnancy of John’s life is palpable.

After seeing that his mom’s room is empty and eating a bowl of cereal with water-diluted milk, John begins his day of work as a taxi driver. His first customer is his friend, Shane, played by Will Poulter (RevanantMaze Runner).

Shane’s life reveals itself as the exact opposite of John’s. While John’s mother is absent and irresponsible, Shane’s mother is doting and overbearing. Shane is always brushing his mother’s attention away, while John is out looking for his mother every night. Shane has his mother do everything at home for him, while John takes care of everything at home, and outside of home. Shane is at the very least well off, as he goes off on a trip at the tail end of the movie. John can barely afford to keep the lights on. The only thing the boys have in common are absent fathers. While the circumstances of Shane’s father are less explicit, neither of their fathers ever appears on screen. It is unclear whether Shane knows about everything that’s going on in John’s life.

The first shot of his mother, Jean (Toni Coullette), is of her lying in her bed, sleeping in her own vomit. John, after checking her pulse, lifts her up in his arms and brings her to the hospital. Moving his mother from the bed to the car is as slow and dreary as it would be in reality. Although full of urgency, without any music or cutting of shots, the audience is forced to savor the vividly heartbreaking details of an unconscious mother, covered in her own vomit, being carried to the car by her son, with the implicit knowledge that this has probably happened before. At the hospital, the doctors are able to save her from the edge of death. She wakes up screaming and vomiting. A doctor informs John that she will need a liver transplant soon, but he isn’t sure if she will live even to that point.

“She is systematically killing herself every day,” says the doctor.

The sounds of the movie are completely true to life. There is never any artificial background music. In the two scenes with music, the music comes from a clear source and reflects the sound of the source (home speakers and ear buds respectively). The movie as a whole holds very few full segments of dialogue. The majority noises are of the car engines, clanking glasses, maniacal screams and sobs. A weighty amount of communication is done with gestures, looks, and sighs. The characters often leave the shot or enter the shot in the middle of a scene as if the audience is accidentally observing the story. Because of this all the actors, especially Reynor and Coullette, are showcased spectacularly. (Another side effect though is that occasionally the story line is hard to follow as context and setting are not always entirely established or clarified.)

A few days after Jean returns from the hospital, John goes to visit his brother, Kit (Harry Nagle), who is at a home for Down’s Syndrome. Despite it being Kit’s birthday, John’s mother refuses to go. John writes a birthday card from his mother to Kit, and goes to support his brother. Nagle and Reynor bounce off each other in a believably fraternal way, as Kit implores John to bring him driving and the two spin around in his taxi cab. But John’s efforts to hide Jean’s avoidance of Kit are to no avail.

“Tell mom I’m sorry okay,” says Kit, in a moment of silence between the brothers.

If the premise of the story didn’t invite this already, Jean’s feelings towards Kit beg the audience to think about the tension between the arbitrary and natural feelings of parenthood. Jean and her husband first found happiness with the birth of John (after inexplicably being unstable after the birth of their first son, Mark, who never appears in the movie).

“You brought light into my life for the first time,” says Jean, “You gave me a purpose.”

Then Kit is born, and as soon as Jean’s husband sees him born, he leaves the hospital, never to return.

Jean says of Kit. “He was nothing to me. Only something that came out of me and ripped my life apart.”

The movie is characterized by its hurtful, unafraid words like these, completely blatant and honest. This leaves little room for empathy with the characters but that’s okay. The purpose of the movie is not empathy, but rather, understanding of how convoluted and immoral life can get from well-intentioned people. She explains how she turned to alcohol when she realized that she would be alone for the rest of her life. John spends the rest of the movie convincing her that through recovery, neither of them have to be alone anymore.

The not-entirely-resolved ending of Glassland is hopeful, although not quite happy. The criminal undertones of John’s life slowly creep to the surface, as John has to face the financially costly reality of recovery and test his own morality. (Although throughout the movie John always proves himself to be nothing less than a saint.) Furthermore, despite the repeating statement of defeat, John sticks to his resolve to never give up his family and begins to spread it to those around him, even as he teaches the audience that no one knows better than he how hard this can be.

Glassland‘s beautifully washed out shots of the tension between personal freedom and moral righteousness shows that even in the stark painfulness of the worst of reality, selflessness and love can succeed. The great success of this movie is its authenticity.

Glassland is in theaters starting on Feb. 12.


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