Long into The Parting Glass, the directorial debut from actor Stephen Moyer of True Blood (2008-14) fame, a new character is introduced seemingly without rhyme or reason. By the time this surprise brother appears, complex relationships have already been detailed between his other siblings Dan (Denis O’Hare); Mare (Cynthia Nixon); Al (Melissa Leo); and patriarch Tommy (Ed Asner). That group has reunited in Columbia, Mo. to set out on a road trip with an initially ambiguous destination. It’s eventually revealed they’ve gathered to settle the death of youngest sister Colleen (Anna Paquin), who only days ago committed suicide. Along with Colleen’s husband, Karl (Rhys Ifans), the group attempts to piece together exactly how and why she took her life.
It may seem petty to nitpick on Sean’s curious inclusion – the character is, after all, never mentioned until he appears, in a film that is largely made of conversations about the past – but it’s just one nagging symptom of the specific conditions that make this small passion project largely a mixed bag. It’s the first produced film script written by its star, O’Hare, the veteran theater actor known to most from his own television work on American Horror Story (2011- ) and True Blood. O’Hare based the story on the fallout surrounding his own sister’s suicide, and the actor’s theatrical background and his quest to work through his grief means that he’s slavishly dedicated to recreating his memories. Unfortunately, the result feels like a playwright’s first draft.
The Parting Glass isn’t stagey in the way that often leads critics label a film “un-cinematic” – typically a condescension from film writers who ignore the relationship between theater and cinema that’s existed since the latter’s creation. Indeed, Moyer produces nice visual flourishes and editing patterns to demonstrate familial relationships and grief. Rather, it’s O’Hare’s dialogue and scene mechanics that create an unsettled mix of the two mediums, making it feel like a dress rehearsal rather than a fully realized film project. Genuinely moving scenes of revelations and shifting dynamics exist alongside awkward approximations of human behavior, undermining what was previously credible. This comes to the fore in the numerous interactions structured according to a predictable pattern: casual reminiscing leading to less-than-gentle ribbing, followed by explosions of long-held resentments and quick, half-hearted resolutions. Forced laughter by the performers punctuates these moments and serves as a reminder that the characters’ shared history is dictated by page and performance.
This well-laureled cast – there are multiple Oscar and Emmy awards between them – isn’t necessarily the issue, although they do have varying degrees of success with the underbaked material. In a keen casting move, each of them seem to bring a bit of their actorly personas along with them, which helps develop character here. As the eldest sibling, Leo is hard but with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, carrying the burden of being the sole sibling who stayed behind in their suburb near Kansas City, Mo. Nixon is superb with her trademark caring sophisticate — her Mare carries herself as if she’s above their small town upbringing but never betrays it to her family members. As Broadway actor Dan, O’Hare does the opposite, repeatedly casually condescending to the local lifestyle – a request for a cup of hot tea creates a detour when he refuses Lipton as an acceptable choice. The flashbacks to the groups’ memories of Colleen have Paquin as the “Manic Pixie Dreamgirl” whose emotional instability dangerously combines with drug abuse. However, it’s Asner who towers above all of them, playing Tommy as a grump who’s nevertheless hyper-sensitive to his children's feelings and needs. It’s his iconic Lou Grant from The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-77) or his great vocal performance from Pixar’s Up (2009) without any respective genre constraints.
The least successful is Ifans, whose typical shaggy hangdog persona should be a perfect fit for Karl, but it becomes obvious the Welsh actor is working overtime to deliver an American accent, shading his complex character into an unfortunate conversative country bumpkin stereotype. Karl, it turns out, was completely unaware of his wife’s intention to leave him, even after she took a traveling nurse job to distance herself from him. His incredible grief at losing Colleen, coupled with his oft-mentioned outsider status within the clan, gives the actor his best scene wherein he finally erupts with anguish and anger.
Gratefully, the tension between the religious, right-wing Karl and the other members of the traveling party, particularly the queer and liberal Dan, is backgrounded, avoiding any great political grandstanding. Stuck alone in his brother-in-law in a beat-up minivan, Dan asks if they can turn off the talk radio program protesting “ungodliness” in today’s liberal corners. No provocation from either men ensues, but the moment colors a subsequent diner stop when a young male server flirts with Dan just before he announces that he and his husband intend on adopting a child. Moyer smartly cuts to Karl often, who seems to stew on his foundational objections but refuses comment. Later, Karl joyously celebrates the potential new family member as the group drinks in a hotel room. The turn may seem like fantasy, but here it demonstrates how some people detrimentally compartmentalize their politics and their supposed love for their family.
In some details of human behavior and interaction, the film presents mixed results, but its depiction of grief entangled with the bureaucratic processes of burying a loved one fares better. O’Hare structures his narrative around finding Colleen’s remains, evaluating autopsy reports, settling her debts, and cleaning the apartment in which she took her life. The business of dying is especially brutal here, creating questions impossible for anyone to answer. The Parting Glass takes its title from a traditional Scottish folk song often sung at the end of gatherings: “That I should rise and you should not / I'll gently rise and I'll softly call / Good night and joy be with you all.” Ultimately, the film ends on a note of comfort in remembrance, suggesting that in loss, the only solace lies in the memories of those passed.
The Parting Glass is now available to rent or purchase from major online platforms.