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Taxi to the Dark Side

Element Pictures Distribution

Glassland (2014)

Kitchen-sink dramas can be very difficult to like. Small movies about unhappy lives can unfortunately sometimes be overwhelmed by their own metaphors. Quite often, directors are also overwhelmed by their own material and don’t know how to let the film breathe. Luckily in “Glassland,” Gerard Barrett makes none of those mistakes. Even better, he has brought in a wonderful cast that is more than capable of making these dim lights shine.

John (Jack Reynor) lives with his alcoholic mother Jean (Toni Collette) in a depressing suburb of Dublin. They love each other very, very much, but their lives are ruled by Jean’s alcoholism. We first see Jean unconscious in bed covered in vomit, before John realizes he must take her to the hospital to have her stomach pumped again. But John’s a taxi driver, and the backseat of his cab has seen plenty of things just as bad, if not worse. When Jean comes home and realizes John has burned all the booze, she screams, rages and smashed up the kitchen before crying herself out and telling her son he’s a good boy. But it’s not all bad. When Jean is in a good mood — when she is funny, laughing and able to see straight — you can see why John loves her so much.

He also has a best friend, Shane (Will Poulter), a gobby idiot who calls his own mother “wee woman,” and who offers John more tea by shouting for “ma!” to make it. The banter between them is utterly priceless. Their friendship is natural and unforced; and the sequence of them at the airport is one of the best depictions of male friendship ever put on screen.

But John also has a younger brother with Down syndrome who lives in a home. And one night, when Jean is calm and lucid, John asks her why she hates this child. The monologue which follows, delivered by Ms. Collette sitting on a sofa, lasts approximately three minutes and is an astonishing tour de force of self-pity, blame, immaturity and ruined dreams; and done in a way which makes Jean an utterly real human being. Even though she’s despicable and the kind of a parent no child deserves — especially one with special needs — Ms. Collette shows us what made her this way, and why. The crowd at the world premiere at the 26th Galway Film Fleadh watched in awestruck silence. If Ms. Collette doesn’t win all the possible awards for this performance, there is no justice in this life.

Despite these stupendous performances, the movie is not all perfect. The influence of Andrea Arnold — who works in similar subject matter — shows strongly in how the homes and the families are presented.

Michael Smiley as an alcohol counselor is severely underused. The repeated shots of John in doorways overcook the metaphor, although the cinematography by Piers McGrail makes good use of small spaces so that somehow we don’t feel too trapped. And the long sequence of Jean dancing in the kitchen uses a song not only to make the point, but to get the point pregnant with little baby points. This lack of subtlety is not applied to all the aspects of the film, to some relief, but it does mean that a few aspects of John’s life are unnecessarily confusing.

But the most impressive thing about “Glassland” is its ending. Without spoiling it for anyone, when John has to make a major decision he does the right thing. Mr. Reynor’s performance as an inarticulate man under unbearable pressure is not showy or even very dramatic, but it rings so true to life that it’s sometimes desperately painful to watch. This is so unusual in cinema, which normally takes pains to preach revenge, justice or other fantasies aimed at teenage boys. “Glassland” puts a fundamentally decent person in a difficult situation where he emerges a fundamentally decent person at the end. This is so special and so rare that almost any flaw can be forgiven.


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