The story of an overtaxed taxi driver (wholeheartedly embodied by Sundance acting-award winner Jack Reynor) forced to care for his mother (Toni Collette, even better) while she tries to drink herself into oblivion, the Dublin-set “Glassland” doles out a downbeat serving of kitchen-sink social realism with the sink itself thrown in for good measure, overflowing as it is with empty liquor bottles, dirty dishes and broken dreams. Once again, “Pilgrim Hill” director Gerard Barrett gravitates toward characters too marginal to garner mainstream interest, while approaching his story with an elegant yet demanding ellipticism that overestimates the audience’s ability (or inclination) to connect the dots.
That’s not to say there isn’t something noble in Barrett’s uncompromised style, which flatters the intelligence of those alert and engaged enough to decipher its clues by dispensing with traditional exposition. Barrett plunges us directly into the septic squalor of Irish public housing, where John (Reynor) is torn between goofing off with best friend Shane (Will Poulter, all grown up since “Son of Rambow”) and being the responsible one of the family.
We see him at the wheel of his cab well before we realize this is how he earns the money to support himself and deadbeat mother, Jean (Collette), who’s passed out in a pool of her own vomit when he gets home from a long night of driving. John rushes his mom to the emergency room with an efficiency that suggests he’s been through this routine before, and sure enough, the doctor advises first that she’ll need a new kidney, and second that she’s headed for the great pub crawl in the sky if she doesn’t get her drinking in check. (No more is said of that kidney transplant, though one supposes it could have something to do with the woman found in the bathtub at the end of the movie. Nah.)
After years of such embarrassment, Jean’s alcoholism has left John exhausted. His mother refuses to acknowledge her youngest son, Kit (played by Harry Nagle, an actor with Down syndrome), which leaves him to attend the kid’s 18th birthday by himself. At her worst, Jean can be a monstrous drunk, so different from the radiant self that breaks through when she’s sober that John records one of her outbursts just so he can later prove how bad it gets. And Collette nails that range without the slightest bit of ostentation, scrubbing all traces of her Australian accent to inhabit the skin of this tragic Irish figure.
Try as John might to save his mother, Jean has to be the one to make the decision, and the first hour of “Glassland” goes by with him trying to push her in that direction while juggling his other responsibilities, which include a series of downright depressing cab fares — squiring hookers to late-night calls, or giving Shane a ride so he can pay child support to the one-night fling who refuses to let him see his son — during which Reynor appears as solemn as Tom Hardy did in “Locke” mode, though from time to time, his inner “Bronson” emerges as well.
Here at the bottom, life is grim, which Barrett conveys via grayishly desaturated environments, wobbly, tightly framed camerawork, no music (save for a half-soused “Tainted Love” dance-off and a few notes to carry the film out at the end) and an editing style that leaves us scrambling to identify where and when things are taking place (at least it’s all linear, so there’s that to be grateful for). Eventually, John succeeds in getting Jean to attend an addicts’ meeting, though a proper detox program will cost £8,000, which John somehow manages to get in a bizarre scene where a person on a horse passes him a tin can full of money.
Men on horseback don’t just give away money without conditions, of course, and it’s fair to assume that the woman-in-bathtub finale has something to do with what the press notes inelegantly describe as “a life-changing task that may change him and his family’s lives forever.” This is the point where even critics are left clueless, as evidenced by a 10-minute debate among befuddled viewers outside the film’s Sundance press screening. It’s not easy to decipher what this life-changing task is, or how it changes his life exactly, but then, that comes back to the age-old difference between ambiguous and unclear. Rather than presenting a nuanced ending that’s open to interpretation, Barrett simply leaves us scratching our heads as to what just happened.