“Glassland” isn’t so much about an addict, or even addiction, as it is about the person marooned in the direct orbit of an addict, and how that marooned person is equally affected by the addict’s erratic, egocentric decisions in the name of his or her addiction. In writer/director Gerard Barrett’s Dublin-set “Glassland” the addict is Jean (Toni Collette) and her willing yet frustrated caretaker is John (Jack Reynor), her son. He wants to help and often does, yet just as often become so exhausted from trying to help that he checks out and merely enables, voluntarily pouring her drinks, with a “why-the-hell-not?” glimmer in his eyes, as if to aid in her quest to drink herself to death. That seems to be her mission, anyway, given an early scene where a doctor councils that if she doesn’t stop drinking, she’ll die, before she promptly turns back up at their shabby home, one where only a little light ever seems to stream through the constantly closed curtains, drunkenly passed out.
Eventually John will get his mom to rehab, but this is not a movie that believes a quick montage in rehab cures all ails. No, Barrett’s movie is a slow-moving mood piece where the mood is prevailingly glum, an Irish version of a British Kitchen Sink drama, where the disillusionment has trickled down from society to the individuals who feel entirely isolated from it. There is very little of an outside world in “Glassland”, merely these little pockets the few people inhabit and their seemingly insolvable problems. Those problems are recounted in an elliptical storytelling style that occasionally demands such viewer scrutiny that on a few counts you might be asking “wait, what happened?” after the credits roll. But even if you occasionally yearn for more narrative clarity, “Glassland” still effectively conveys a quiet intensity, even in its hazier moments, one that manifests itself most often in the pained face of John, a character pitched between wanting to explode and battling to keep it together.
If addiction movies often trend toward histrionics, this one prefers to solemnly brood. The lone monologue belongs to Jean in which she cycles through her life’s bottoming out, which Collette serves not with any kind of grand passion but as if she’s skipped past admitting to she can’t control her addiction and recognizing a higher power and simply settled for examining her past errors. But notice how Barrett films this monologue – Jean sits on the couch, John lays on the sofa, as if she’s the therapist, and he’s the patient. Indeed, the painful-to-take admittance is that her first and third sons are what drove her to drink, because she wanted to forget them, which she more or less did, and that the only son she really cared for was John, sweet John, who she babies even if he’s more routinely having to baby her.
Watching Reynor in this moment, however, is even better than listening to Collette, as he lays on the couch, like an unwilling patient in therapy, and gradually allows his breathing to pick up to the point where you can see his chest heaving up and down, as if he can’t take it but has to. Though she’s explaining why she is the way she is, she’s also explaining why he is the way he is. The emergent irony is that for all this responsibility, he remains something of a manboy, glimpsed in his video game playing sessions with his friend, never afforded the space to grow up for always having to remain at his mom’s side. It’s a strange fate, to be a responsible caretaker even if you’ve simultaneously failed to completely leave the adolescent cocoon.
Now most movies would have him cross a threshold, however small, by the end, but “Glassland” never makes that readily apparent. It doesn’t collapse into nihilism, but it also forgoes sunny optimism; it’s up in the air. That idea is most acutely captured in the face of Reynor, in the recurring shots of him sitting in his taxi, staring watch what? Nothing, really, just staring out the window, and even if we never really knew exactly what John is thinking in these moments, Reynor effuses the sensation of a man with a lot on his mind and nowhere to put it, all of it building up, threatening to burst. You hope he won’t. You wonder if he will.