Anyone who has sat through director Richard Bates Jr.’s memorably disturbing 2012 effort Excision may have an inkling of what to expect with this, his third feature-length effort. While there are shared tonal similarities with the latter, Trash Fire represents a big step up for the director.
A film of two halves, we’re initially witness to a dark domestic drama and the disintegration of a relationship between Adrian Grenier’s emotionally-aloof Owen and his exasperated girlfriend Isabel (Angela Trimbur). Owing to a family tragedy years back, he’s chock-full of resentment and is constantly alienating those close to him. Even his hilariously unresponsive shrink has given up on him. This awkward and often painful section has the air of a Neil LaBute two-hander, complete with the similar stream of caustic, jet black humour pumping through its veins (due to the word-heavy script, intimate atmosphere and lack of exteriors, the film could feasibly work as a stage production).
Things are taken up a considerably unbalanced notch later on in the film when Owen is encouraged to make peace with his surviving family and heads down south with Isobel to reconnect with his god-fearing grandmother Violet (veteran Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan) and hermit-like sister Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord). But old wounds are tough to heal as Owen’s dysfunctional clan prove to be a huge handful, chiefly Violet and her staunchly old-fashioned Christian views which leave Isabel disgusted and dumbfounded. Pearl, a dainty child-like figure, having been in virtual lockdown from society since the accident, is also a tough nut to crack. She seems unable to reconcile with her brother and forgive him for life-altering incident he caused in their past.
Bates Jr. gets great mileage out of his cast, particularly the triumvirate of family members. Flanagan is a scream as the domineering matriarch, a toe-curlingly awful individual which the actress manages to steer away from fire and brimstone caricature even when her actions tips things into the realms of broad comedy (although these scenes are no less amusing). Grenier is excellent in a challenging role, shedding that sometimes vacant, devil-may-care attitude from Entourage, but it’s his fellow small-screen alumni, AnnaLynne McCord (formally of 90210) who comes close to stealing the film from both her co-stars. The lead in the aforementioned Excision, McCord is turning into something of a director’s muse. Shrouded in darkness for the majority of her screen time, she’s both disturbing and wholly sympathetic as the disfigured sister.
Trash Fire is a strange and unsettling film but it rarely feels like a shock-value exploitation piece. Save for the odd graphic and choppier-edited flashback, it’s a much more reserved affair than the director’s previous work, and is all the more better for this. As such, it isn’t the easiest film to classify genre-wise, but this is by no means a negative and is precisely what lends it such a distinctive quality and outlook. It’s fitting that it’s been picked as part of the Grimmfest line-up.
It’s the type of leftfield material which works magnificently at a horror festival, sneaking up unannounced and giving viewers a little more to chew on other than the entrails of reanimated corpses.