Colm (Tom Vaughn-Lawlor) is a forty-something man in crisis. His father recently died, sending him spiraling about his relationship with his own son, who hates him. He’s unhappy with work, he’s unhappy at home, he’s drinking way too much to compensate; and, oh yeah, when he’s approached by a young blond hustler, (Tom Glynn-Carney) in a mall bathroom, he follows him into a stall and finally gives in to the impulses he’s kept locked away his entire life.
At first Colm is ashamed—he hadn’t realized the younger man wanted money—but he keeps going back, paying the 19 year-old Jay for a series of encounters that escalate from merely watching the hustler pleasure himself to full-on sex. Colm finally feels able to open up to someone, and it seems like the hustler is taking a genuine liking to the older, emotionally-wounded man. Jay has a child of his own to care for, anyway, and the money’s good.
This is the setup of Irish drama Rialto, director Peter Mackie Burns’ screen adaptation of the play Trade by Mark O’Halloran, who wrote the screenplay. Rialto works mostly as a character study, as there isn’t much of a plot. There’s sex (keeping all the naughty bits just out of frame) and then there’s sadness, so most of the “action” comes from watching the play of emotions across Tom Vaughn-Lawlor’s extraordinarily expressive face. He’s a man barely holding it in, barely keeping it together while shame and regret threaten to tear him apart.
Vaughn-Lawlor is on screen in just about every frame of the film. When Colm is talking to other people, they are mostly kept off-screen, and we instead watch in long takes as he reacts to what they’re saying. It’s a powerhouse, emotionally-naked performance, at times uncomfortably raw; we feel as though we are bearing witness to a man teetering on the precipice, his quiet desperation for change threatening to consume him from within.
Tom Glynn-Carney does great work here too. He is attractively inscrutable as the brusque hustler; we understand why Colm finds him an irresistible outlet for his pain, and Jay’s growing affinity for the older man is touching, but we’re not really given a chance to get to know the character outside of how he affects Colm’s state of mind. I understand that that’s the point — that Colm is so in-his-own-head to the point where it’s eating him alive — but it makes for a somewhat frustrating viewing experience.
The relationships in the film are an echoing cascade of father/child and older/younger power dynamics. Colm’s relationship with his father informs his relationship with his son, and his relationship with his son informs how he treats the similarly-aged Jay, and vice-versa, and back and forth, until he finds himself tied up in knots to understand why he feels the way he does about any of it. Sometimes all he can do is stay in bed.
His escalating panic about the direction of his life is best summed up by an exchange late in the film where Colm finally admits to Jay that his father has recently died. We know he and his father didn’t really get along, but up until this point we don’t know why. “All he was at the end,” Colm says, his face contorted in pain, “was an accumulation of fucking lies, really. Isn’t that awful. I hate it and it makes me afraid.” It’s clear that he recognizes this in himself—that he too has been lying to his son his entire life about who he is—and that he doesn’t know a way out, a way to be honest with himself and with his son before it’s too late.
Considering these grand questions that don’t have easy answers makes Rialto a punishing, dour exercise that probably could have used a bit of relief. It’s claustrophobic to be trapped so severely inside one character’s head, denying us any alternate perspective to the point where, when he pays Jay to simply undress and stand in front of him, we don’t even see the other man, instead simply watching Colm in close-up as he considers Jay and reverently breathes, “You’re beautiful.” However, as a character piece, as a showcase for one incredible performance and a number of smaller ones that don’t get the focus they deserve (but make an impression nonetheless), Rialto is a worthwhile experience.
Rialto is in virtual US cinemas from September 18th, and will be released on VOD and DVD on Tuesday October 20th.