Rialto is a heart wrenching but unexpectedly problematic drama about an older man’s encounters with a young, male prostitute.
Remember American Beauty? One would be forgiven for trying to forget about it as socio-cultural norms and attitudes progress… But, for a brief time, its smirking destabilization of suburbia and black comedy weaponization of repressed homosexuality and pedophilic lust felt rather refreshing. Twenty years have since gone by, and plots about white married men, both sexually frustrated and repressed, have become decidedly unwelcome. It’s not for lack of dramatics, or for opportunities to explore how the stagnancy of suburbia often culminates in either victorious freedom or self-inflicted misery, but chiefly due to the waning draw of the men at the center of these stories. Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey)’s smug charade has no place in 2020, and it’s evident that new ground is in desperate need of tilling. Unfortunately, Peter Mackie Burn’s second feature, Rialto, and its painfully desperate characters are entrenched too deeply on the other end of the spectrum. Where American Beauty is exceedingly dated and limited by its obnoxious confidence, Rialto is neutered by its’ characters’ dedication to selfish misery.
Quickly identifying itself as a thoroughly somber affair, Rialto follows Colm (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), a man in his mid-fourties in the midst of a downwards spiral. Freshly laid-off and pained by the recent death of his abusive father, Colm struggles to connect with his patient wife and children. The distance between his family grows greater as Colm begins seeing Jay, a 19-year-old male prostitute ironically trying to maintain a stable foundation for his burgeoning family. Very soon, Rialto slips into familiar territory: as Colm and Jay meet more often and grow more personable, Colm continues to lean on Jay as a proxy-therapist for his emotional turmoil.
Unfortunately, these sorrowful moments of vulnerability and self-emasculation are jeopardized by Rialto’s fatal flaw, that Colm is an utterly detestable person. While repulsive characters aren’t immediate grounds for sympathy and dismissal, Colm spends much of his time seemingly begging to be hated: bickering and constantly abandoning his mother, cheating on his wife, ignoring his children, and so forth. It’s easy to notice that Colm is an emotionally tortured wreck, but Rialto’s disinterest in external criticism of its main character’s choices is an unforgivable travesty. Burns’ ending is of little help either in regaining the audience’s empathy, instead rising to the challenge of “how abrupt and ambiguous can one make an ending”.
It’s a shame too, since Rialto is wonderfully acted across the board. Tom Vaughan-Lawlor brings a distinct, painful weight to Colm, as if he’s being physically crushed by the emotional weight on his shoulders. In juxtaposition to Colm’s downcast and incessantly apologetic attitudes is Tom Glynn-Carney’s Jay, whose bleached hair and brazen attitude are off put by a carefully guarded sincerity. Adam Scarth’s minimalist cinematography serves these characters well, letting them occupy nearly the whole frame with handheld closeups interspersed with drawn-out wide shots of Colm’s aimless wandering.
And so, Rialto resides complacently within a distinct and peculiar subgenre. Rialto’s story of struggling to reconcile with one’s masculinity, vulnerability, and emotional stability, can resonate in small moments, but it’s too often marred by how little its central characters move away from their selfishness and cowardice. When it isn’t crippled by these issues, Rialto soars as an actors’ film. It’s worth a watch just for Tom Glynn-Carney and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s performances, and also, to see how far these types of films have come.
Rialto was released in UK cinemas by Breakout Pictures on October 2, 2020.