Trash Fire (2016) is a nasty piece of work with pointed wit and real bite. Writer-director Richard Bates Jr. (Suburban Gothic, 2014) really comes into his own with this twisted and blackly comic relationship drama turned Southern Gothic macabre tale. The film smoothly switches directions and mounts a simmering disquiet into heavily uncomfortable territory involving religious extremism and major family drama. Toxicity is the name of the game, but it’s a master of tonal precision that Bates Jr. handles as a full-bore burnt-black comedy.
Web designer Owen (Adrian Grenier) and interior designer Isabel (Angela Trimbur) are a miserable couple of three years. An alcoholic with bulimia and prone to epileptic seizures, Owen lost his parents in a house fire, in which his sister suffered third-degree burns. Isabel still can’t bring herself to leave him, even if her Bible-thumping brother Caleb (Matthew Gray Gubler) and Owen have a mutual dislike for one another. When she realizes she’s pregnant, Isabel demands that if they are going to have this child together, they will have to reconcile with Owen’s God-fearing, shotgun-toting grandmother, Violet (Fionnula Flanagan), and his sister, Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord), whose scorched, reclusive state has left Owen feeling responsible. Eventually, Isabel will more than understand why her boyfriend has stayed far away.
Whereas Bates Jr.’s first feature, 2012’s Excision, was a shocker that sometimes felt gratuitous, Trash Fire sets a vitriol-tongued tone that grows more unsettling once Owen and Isabel get to Grandmother’s house. “For as long as I can remember, I’d been waiting for my parents to die, so I could commit suicide without feeling an overwhelming sense of guilt,” says Owen, pouring his guts out to his sound-asleep psychiatrist (Sally Kirkland). That’s just one piece of the deliciously barbed dialogue Richard Bates Jr. has penned.
The performances really click, too. Leave it to Bates Jr. to get an interestingly unpleasant performance out of Adrian Grenier (Entourage, 2004-2011), who isn’t asked to be liked here. His Owen is a real bastard but, eventually, one can see where all of the negativity he spews has originated. As Isabel, Angela Trimbur (The Final Girls, 2015) is sympathetic without backing down. The wonderful Fionnula Flanagan makes for a wickedly cutting heavy as grandmother Violet, delivering spiteful venom like it’s her first nature. Without hesitation, she states that her daughter was a “whore,” her son-in-law a “moron”, and her granddaughter an “abomination.” Kept in the shadows for quite a while, AnnaLynne McCord (the director’s star in Excision) has the toughest job, finding a balance between creepy voyeur, childlike and unstable.
Smartly acted and cut like a razor, Trash Fire keeps overturning expectations left and right. The viewer keeps holding on, waiting for Owen and Isabel’s escape to live a happy life together that may never come. Violet’s intentions are clearly sinister, but every time her plan keeps being reset in motion, director Richard Bates Jr. throws in a wrench that surprises us; for this reviewer, the film imagines a personal fear out of the insidious placement of a rattlesnake with nerve-shredding tension. Given the volatile, blood-drenched gut-punch of a finale, those hoping that Owen and Isabel will work out their differences with Violet and Pearl are in for a very rude awakening. Trash Fire will draw blood.