Foscadh (Shelter) is a heartbreaking story of one man’s isolation and desolation in rural Ireland.
The Irish-language drama, which was Ireland’s submission for Best International Feature Film to the 94th Academy Awards, is based on characters from the novel The Thing about December by Donal Ryan.
John Cunliffe has lived his whole life coddled and protected by his parents. He has a job in the village loading and unloading pallets, but his heart, mind and body belong at home. After his mother passes away, John is left to navigate the complexities of life alone for the first time.
At the wake, John sits silently as neighbours offer condolences. He wears a suit that’s a touch too big on him. John is sitting and the camera is fixed above his head. At this moment, and in many other scenes throughout Foscadh, John looks to still be a child. “A little God. Wrapped in cotton wool,” as his uncle puts it later in the film.
John is soft-spoken and drawn-in. His manner is anxious. Dónall Ó Héalai is constantly shuffling from one foot to another, avoiding eye contact and carrying himself like a man who doesn’t want to be seen, or perhaps, as someone who is not used to being seen.
John is a simple man living in a tiny world of his parent’s making. He knows a lot about a handful of things. He knows about the flora and fauna around his family home, he knows about the boundaries of his parents’ land, the mountains and hills that surround their estate.
While not directly present in the film, “Mammy” and “Daddy”, as John calls them, are a constant presence in his mind and in the frame as well. Photographs are placed throughout the family home. John leaves the house as it was when his parents were alive. In the immediate aftermath of his mother’s death, Ó Héalai slinks around the place, taking care not to make too much noise. He sleeps on the sofa, as if he’s waiting for her to come home from church or the bingo hall.
John inherits his parents’ land, a sizeable property. He’s told by a solicitor that he needn’t worry about money anymore. That doesn’t stop other people worrying about money on his behalf.
Stephen, a local businessman, wants to use some of John’s land for a lucrative wind-farm project. John has a strong connection to his father’s land, and he is reluctant to do anything with the property. An outsider would spoil the integrity of the land, and, to John, sully the memory of his mother and father.
The camera takes in these vast landscapes from afar. John’s little world is, in fact, quite expansive. But the hills and valleys in the distance don’t offer up possibilities for John. They’re boundaries, prison walls, that keep him boxed in. He cannot step out of the shadow of those mountains because so much of his life and identity are tied to the land, the past and his parents.
In many sequences we see cars approaching the farm house in complete darkness. Like debris drifting in space, the farmhouse seems apart from the rest of the world, a lonely one-manned satellite.
One night while out in the village, a local tough confronts John over his inheritance, beating him badly. John wakes up in hospital, most of his face wrapped in bandages. Here he gains the sympathy of his nurse, Siobhán (Fionnuala Flaherty) and also grows close to his roommate Dave (Cillian Ó Gairbhí).
The hospital set looks like a place out of time with its garish, highlighter-coloured walls. Director Sean Breathnach shoots John’s recovery in a swimmy style that bleeds one scene into the next. This section has an unsettling quality. Voices fade in and out, the camera sits close to John’s face as he struggles to focus on what’s happening around him. As John recovers, the style becomes more coherent.
People have a way of inserting themselves into John’s life. Dave, like the local businessman Stephen, sees John’s naivety as an opportunity. Dave, who is boastful and obnoxious, takes John under his wing. In one scene, over a meal of supermarket apple pie and cans of Stella, Dave claims to have slept with hundreds of women. This impresses inexperienced John, who takes it at face value.
Their relationship is intense. Dave is one of those people who gets right up in your face when he’s drunk. He does enough talking for the pair of them and imparts dubious wisdom to John at every opportunity. There’s a clownishness to him, but there’s anger too, bubbling away beneath the surface.
Dave pushes John to ask Siobhán out on a date. After many cans and a pep talk from Dave, the pair return to the hospital. Siobhán is nervous around her coworkers and brushes John off, but soon turns up at his house and the two begin a strange kind of romance.
Dave has all sorts of pick-up artist-style takes on the situation. In one bizarre but telling sequence, the two men sit in a parked car as Dave eats a kebab and browses Pornhub on his phone. All around the car people are out on the town, enjoying themselves. Maybe Dave and John could be part of the action too but it’s safer to be locked in together with empty calories and male curiosity.
Siobhán’s motivations are less clear than Dave’s. Flaherty’s expressions are ambiguous too. Is it love or pity that draws her to John? In some sequences they flirt and tease like any couple but in others they both look weathered, almost twice their age. In others they begin to look like mother and son.
As he is with Dave, John is mostly along for the ride with Siobhán. An encounter with his attacker later in the film sees John freeze with fear. Following a heavy night of drinking games, Dave makes a move on Siobhán and she insists that John kick him out of the house – and, again John stands and stares, unable to act.
That same night, he attempts to have sex with Siobhán but he can’t perform. John thrusts again and again, the headboard hammers against the bedroom wall, in rhythm with Siobhán’s crying for him to stop.
Throughout the film we see and hear John masturbating. The first time is at his mother’s wake. Later it’s in the darkness of his bedroom. Crucially, the camera cuts before the action is complete. John’s efforts amount to nothing, it’s the same wild thrashing as with Siobhán. Impotent and unfinished.
John’s only chance at changing his life, and breaking free of the prison of the past is to escape.
In the film’s final sequence, he sits in his parents’ disused car, turning the key in the hopes that it will spring to life. The moment where the car finally starts, like most other aspects of Foscadh, is open to interpretation. Ó Héalai looks relieved and terrified all at once. The world, the real world, is finally open to him. All he has to do is drive.