“Trash Fire” (2016)
Starring: Adrian Grenier, AnnaLynne McCord, Angela Trimbur, Fionnula Flanagan
Director: Richard Bates Jr
It takes the audience all of 36 seconds with Owen (Adrian Grenier, Entourage) for the audience to realise he’s a total asshole. In fact, very quickly it becomes clear that all of the characters in this film are terrible people. It’s not uncommon for a comedy-horror film to be filled with characters we can’t wait to see die but as the movie goes on, we begin to root for Owen and his girlfriend Isabel (Angela Trimbur) instead of wait for them to die.
Isabel and Owen’s relationship is well past stale. Owen has a myriad of bad excuses for his behaviour; he’s a bulimic, an alcoholic, a “Satanist” (to avoid seeing Isabel’s Christian brother, an excellent cameo by Bates staple Matthew Gray Gubler) and prone to having seizures, all triggered by the death of his parents when he was a teenager. Perhaps the film’s biggest flaw is it’s impossible to understand why Isabel stays with him.
When Isabel discovers she is pregnant, the pair decide to work on their relationship, but only if Isabel can finally meet the only living members of Owen’s family tree: his younger sister Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord, Excision, Nip/Tuck), who bears the burn scars of the fire that killed their parents, and his grandmother Violet (Fionnula Flanagan), a sadistic and uptight woman who lets her religion control — and excuse — every aspect of her life. It is here that the audience quickly jumps ship. Violet shares Owen’s penchant for speaking her mind and relishes in Isabel’s reactions to her crude comments, but it is Pearl the audience is really afraid of. While the characters in the movie are unable to look at her without wearing a blindfold, we see her tiptoeing around the house in a white nightgown, pointing guns at her grandmother and masturbating while spying on Isabel. Both Pearl and Violet remember the fire differently to Owen, and the longer he stays the more truth of what really happened that night emerges.
This is an incredibly brave film. The actors are not afraid to make the audience uncomfortable. It’s clear characters speak the first thing that comes to mind every time they open their mouths. Bates frequently uses POV shots, with characters in the middle of the frame speaking directly to the camera, telling the audience just what they think of them. The ending arrives like a punch in the gut and feels distinctly studio involvement-free. Flashbacks to the fire are millisecond-long clips of grainy footage, the film’s only jumpscares. The entire movie centres on making viewers just as uneasy as the characters, and in that, it succeeds.
The film falls flat, however, due to a few small but critical creative choices. We see Pearl’s burn scars far too early. While the opening twenty minutes set up Owen as our protagonist, the film abruptly transitions into being Isabel’s story. A few seemingly significant subplots — Pearl’s sexuality and Violet’s relationship with the local pastor — go nowhere. The film is tight at 93 minutes, but it could be tighter.
Trash Fire is not a film for everyone. Its characters are sadistic sociopaths, its laughs morbid, and the outlook from the get-go very bleak. But if you’re looking for a movie with plenty of grit, sick humour and grotesque prosthetics — if you are just as much of an asshole as these characters — it might just find its way into your heart.