Richard Bates Jr. is a film-maker that I’ve admired ever since I saw his first film, the wonderfully acidic and biting Excision. It successfully melded horror elements with a heavy dollop of dark comedy set within a grounded story. Add in a wonderfully talented cast with career-best performances from Traci Lords and AnnaLynne McCord, and Excision was one of the best films I saw in 2012.
Since then, I have followed his work and had enjoyed his second film, the horror-comedy Suburban Gothic. The lighter approach to horror and comedy (compared to Excision) and the likable characters made it an enjoyable experience, similar to watching old Scooby-Doo cartoons. And now, we finally have his latest film, Trash Fire, which seems to be following the same path as Excision. And knowing that the cast has AnnaLynne McCord and Matthew Gray Gubler coming back for more, I was psyched. So – did Trash Fire meet my high expectations?
The film starts off with Owen (Adrian Grenier, Entourage) telling his life story to his increasingly weary shrink (Sally Kirkland) and how he wanted to kill himself ever since his parents died in a freak fire that also left his sister Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord) permanently scarred. After that, we go into a dinner setting where we see his long-suffering girlfriend Isabel (Angela Trimbur). They clearly have issues (not helped by her side of the family); Isabel has had enough of him and decides to break it off. Fast-forward to avoid spoilers, something major happens and the two decide to patch things up and try harder on their relationship by revisiting Owen’s surviving family, consisting of his grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) and Pearl, who has been living under her care. Owen is really reluctant on the matter, but decides to go along with the plan due to his love for Isabel. Little do the two know that the past always comes back to bite them in the ass and boy, does it bite. Hard.
From the synopsis, it doesn’t seem to hint that the story has anything that could be considered as horror. But like Excision, that’s the beauty of the genre. Richard Bates Jr‘s direction starts off with a grounded story that could happen to anyone and yet builds the horror from it to the point that the mood and atmosphere can be increasingly uneasy. The relationship between Owen and Isabel is well-developed and portrayed and it never backs off from nor tones down the ugliness that plagues it. Bates intelligently mixes the drama from the relationship with the horror to the point that it comes off not only as scary, but also quite insightful.
In case the story sounds grim and depressing, Bates also brings back the dark comedy that made his other films earn cult status. Religion (like in Excision) is the target here and boy does it take a lot of hits. All of the characters who are religious are shown to be either self-righteous, hypocritically blind or – for lack of better words – utterly insane. And through all that, Bates squeezes the humour for all its worth. Plus, all the interactions between family members are hilarious to witness, with passive-aggressive attitudes, evil eyes and mean remarks that one can treasure. I know I did.
But none of this would be anywhere near as effective if it weren’t for the committed cast. Adrian Grenier is far away from what you expect from his performances in Entourage, and he seems to relish the darkness and nihilistic behaviour his character. But he never overdoes his performance, retaining enough humanity that he makes Owen empathetic, if not quite sympathetic at times. Doing a 180 turn from her high-energy performance in The Final Girls, Angela Trimbur is superb as Isabel, showing easy dramatic chops along her proven comedic chops; and she has great chemistry with Grenier. The two have a sex scene together that must be seen to be believed. I have to admit, it made me do a spit-take.
The supporting cast are no slouches and do the most with what they are given. Matthew Gray Gubler is funny as the religious brother of Isabel and has great interactions with Grenier, which pays off with some hilarious barbs. Meanwhile, AnnaLynne McCord is again unrecognizable (like in Excision) and is having a whale of a time as Pearl. Whether peeking through a hole while doing something the Lord wouldn’t like, to playing with guns, McCord still frightens and entertains, even in a smaller role. But the MVP of the film is Fionnula Flannagan as the grandmother of Owen. Deranged, toxic, rude and upfront (much like the film), Flannagan is a pure delight whenever she shows up. It is definitely her scariest role since Yes Man. Yes, that is a joke. Or is it?
As for its flaws, the tone can be a bit imbalanced (fittingly, so are the characters) since the drama and comedy can be a bit apart from each other; and the gloriously over-the-top ending may not be satisfying for everyone, but Trash Fire shows that Bates (not related to Norman Bates, I swear) hasn’t lost a step.
Trash Fire: Luckily, filled with much more fire than trash.
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Trash Fire screened at the Sydney Underground Film Festival.