Dollhouse marks the return of Kirsten Sheridan, who is still best known for 2000’s unlikeable Disco Pigs and for being the daughter of Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, The Field, In The Name of the Father, The Boxer). Dollhouse marks a bit of a departure as the script is almost totally improvised with a cast of unknowns, although one is now recognisable – Jack Reynor from Lenny Abrahamson’s fantastic What Richard Did. Dollhouse is the first feature film from the filmmaker’s collective The Factory, formed in 2010 by John Carney (November Afternoon, Park, On The Edge, Once, Zonad, The Rafters), Lance Daly (Last Days in Dublin, The Halo Effect, Kisses and the forthcoming Life's A Breeze) and Sheridan herself.
Five teenagers break into an empty house on a well-to-do neighbourhood on the coast of Dublin. They look around the house, clearly impressed by all the expensive stuff, some of them stunned almost into silence by the lifestyles of the ‘haves.’ They drink heavily and have a raucous party, laying waste to the house. But when one of them turns out to have a secret, and when a young neighbour Robbie (Jack Reynor) calls around to complain about the noise, things take a dark turn, with violence a constant threat.
Someone used to say that Reservoir Dogs feels like a violent film, despite its relative lack of violence, because there is, throughout the film, the threat of violence. Dollhouse is the same, but much more so. The apparently self-appointed head of the group Eanna (Johnny Ward of Savage, Five Day Shelter and This Must Be The Place) is thoroughly dangerous, his jokes and pranks constantly on the cusp of breaking into violence. Ward is absolutely terrifying, making a complex and unpredictable character out of what would ordinarily be a one-note thug. Jeannie (Seána Kerslake, her debut), the one with the secret, shows the effects of her life collapsing around her, at her own instigation, with very few words. Jack Reynor is fantastic again, showing that his role in the next Transformers film really will be a waste of his talents.
Sheridan’s film has a real feeling of the work of John Cassavetes about it. Not so much the violence, but the deep emotions that only rarely come to the surface and the complex, almost contradictory characters. These six people are entirely out of touch with their emotions, as seen in a scene in which one of the characters goes to have a shower. Threatening before, he now appears entirely vulnerable and alone, peeling off his clothes and revealing the marks of presumed domestic abuse. It is impossible to tell since he is in the shower but it seems as if he is in tears. Similarly, Jeannie, finding herself confronted by the rest of the group, can’t decide whether to laugh or cry, so she does both. Though it does not reach the sheer artistry and emotional power of Cassavetes at his best, at certain moments it comes close.
That said, the young cast do struggle visibly with the improvisations, and the film is full of little pauses in which the cast look like they have no idea where to go next. Sometimes, these moments work, showing the reality underneath the performance and clearly there is a point being made about a person’s behaviour in front of their friends being a performance constantly improvised and frequently trapped and confused. This works well, but not consistently. The film stumbles at moments or, worse, becomes confused itself, wandering through a longueur looking for a point before giving up and going back on track. Similarly, the plot is a little too loose, falling back on the same situations again and again. However, the power of the performances and the film’s sheer unpredictability and thoroughly unsettling tension more than makes up for the less successful aspects of the improvisations.
What ultimately damages the film is Sheridan’s fondness for an almost didactic symbolism. The improvised scenes sometimes give way to more lyrical, more formalist sequences, which were clearly planned and directed (with a capital ‘D’) by Sheridan. They are not all bad, but the obvious symbolism of many of them feels like an active negation of the more powerful, unplanned moments in the film. The film ends with a twist but also with a lot of overtly significant dialogue and with each character looking around with silent, understanding expressions, as if they have all learned something profound. When they tidy their clothes up and walk back out into the world, the allusions to putting their masks back on and to a coming of age are tacky and annoying. It is a shame, in a film so unpredictable and unsettling, so wonderfully indeterminate, that it should all the resolved with such unrealistic arthouse posturing – it pretends to say a lot about young people but it really doesn’t. That the ending is so frustrating, however, shows how much the rest of the film was working.
Dollhouse is a powerful and uncomfortable film, one that seems alive and unapologetic – like a debut of a young filmmaker with greatness ahead of them, which may or may not say much about Sheridan. Indeed, it seems hard to imagine that many people will like it if they weren’t already interested in improvisation in film. The arch symbolism of Disco Pigs does make an unwelcome appearance, but it is more than made up for by the challenging and exciting aesthetic. To end on a superlative, Dollhouse is one of the most disturbing and powerful dramas that Ireland has produced.
See also: Husbands