As his life falls apart around him, an unfulfilled family man finds some solace in the company of a male prostitute in Rialto, the new feature film from director Peter Mackie Burns and writer Mark O’Halloran.

Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as Colm shuffles through his life with shamefaced aimlessness, head always down, brow furrowed, shoulders slumped in defeat. He is a man with the full weight of the world on his shoulders. An Atlas of the Docklands.

Rialto is a film of major and minor confrontations. Colm lives at odds with the people and the forces of the world around him. The physical, mental, and verbal scuffles we see throughout the film show us his desire to change his reality — and his inability to do so.

We begin with a bit of misdirection. Colm clocks out early from his job as a logistics drone at Dublin Port and heads to a local shopping centre. Presumably, he is there to do middle-aged dad stuff: get a coffee at the food court, stop into a bookshop, exhaustively peruse the Argos catalogue.

Instead, the camera follows Colm in long shots, tracking him up an elevator and into a bathroom. We are onlookers as Colm skulks about awkwardly in the men’s room. We soon realise that he is cruising, even if he is not willing to admit it himself.

Colm is confronted by a young man in a bathroom stall. Things don’t go as expected. Colm can’t go through with things, he is mugged and left to slink home humiliated. There he finds a little sympathy — far more pity, a familiar ambiance in his household.

These sequences at home are a tragedy of manners. Colm is almost catatonic around his family. Mush-mouthed and morose. His wife Claire (Monica Dolan) wants to understand what is wrong, but as with his earlier encounter in the bathroom stall, Colm can’t speak to what he wants or to his real feelings.

He eventually tells her a version of the day’s events: he was mugged by a young lad and feels shaken up. Burns focuses on the couple’s hands in this scene. As Claire tries to clasp Colm’s in assurance he pulls away. The body language between them looks like that of mother and son rather than husband and wife.

The next day, Jay (Tom Glynn-Carney), the young man from the bathroom, shows up at Colm’s work to return his wallet. Later, Colm solicits Jay for sex.

Initially, these interactions are hands-off: Colm watches Jay masturbate in a car park. “This can be our secret,” Colm tells the teenager.

Colm’s relationship with Jay is imbalanced. To Jay, Colm is more than a mark, but not much more. The Jay-Colm bond is based on commerce, whereas the Colm-Jay relationship is built on runaway emotion.

As the intensity of their sexual relationship builds, the camera tends to focus on Vaughan-Lawlor’s face. His expression now carries the weight of his double-life. He is unable to be free even in sexual climax. Vaughan-Lawlor is a powerhouse of desperation, a pitiable hangdog full up with guilt and repression.

Sequences throughout Rialto show Colm making his way across the dockyard. We see him climbing structures and gazing out to sea in lost desperation. At times, he appears to be walking on the spot as the camera moves further and further away from him.

Overhead, freight containers hang from cranes. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor moves so slowly beneath them that it is as though he is willing (daring) a container to relieve him of life’s pressure once and for all.

A running theme of the film is the uneasy relationships between fathers and sons. Colm’s father has recently died but his memory haunts Colm. The sense we get is that Colm was a mother’s boy, he has no love for his father because he was so present a figure.

Colm’s own son, Shane (Scott Graham), aggressive and casually homophobic, hates Colm for not being present at all. “We all hate our das […] we’re supposed to, I think, it’s natural,”

There is no question about the future of Colm and Jay’s relationship. Jay puts it bluntly “It isn’t real. It’s money.” Rialto’s lingering questions concern Colm and his family. Colm is vague as ever with Claire but she eventually senses that there’s something amiss with him.

Shane’s open contempt for his father builds to a gut-punch of a bust-up that feels too cutting for all involved. As Vaughan-Lawlor tells a seething Graham about his relationship with Jay. “He fucks me, and I love him more than I love you.” We feel like both parties. Destroyed.

Writer Mark O’Halloran has plenty of experience in dramatising the emotional shortcomings of the man’s man, as well as the hate that can come from chasing the macho ideal. Unlike recent credits Halal Daddy and, particularly, Viva, which offered much in the way of tenderness, Rialto instead leaves us in cruel ambiguity.

By the close of Rialto, we’ve seen too much of Colm. The acting is not one-note, but the character is stuck in such miserable circumstances that it’s hard to imagine a life beyond the cut to the credits.

In the final scene of the film, he sets about clearing up the garden, something he had wanted Shane to help with. Even in this work, there is a gesture that seems to imply some growth. But Colm wears the same expression as he did on the Docklands.

As the film closes, it’s not a falling freight container that crushes the life out of this man. It’s life itself, slowly but surely. The closing shot of Rialto sees Colm framed in a doorway looking into his family home.

To me, he looked like a specimen under glass, dried out, and stuck forever.

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Luke Maxwell: Luke Maxwell is the host of the film review show, Viewfinder on 103.2 Dublin City FM. He also hosts The Movie Express Podcast, which you can find at www.movieexpress.org.

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