Richard Bates Jr. has built a career telling stories that take place in a dark alternate universe that is not all that unlike our own. His characters are universally repulsive in their own way, with the protagonist of each film appearing a bit worse than their supporting counterparts. I don’t know if anyone would wish themselves into the world where these people supposedly exist, but an excursion every few years isn’t all that bad.
With Trash Fire, Bates’ third feature film since 2010 (following Excision and Suburban Gothic), the twisted storyteller introduces us to a couple fighting to maintain a relationship that appears to only be causing them strife. Owen (Adrien Grenier) is a deeply broken man with a decidedly negative outlook on life who berates his longtime girlfriend, Isabel (Angela Trimbur), almost as often as he experiences haunting visions of his parents dying in a fire. Isabel herself is not much better, spewing a steady stream of insults at Owen in response to his increasingly poor behavior. If it weren’t for a series of seizures being experienced by Owen it’s likely Isabel would have left long before the film begins. As is, though, she’s at her wit’s end and still hopelessly in love with a man who drives her to the point of tears on a near-daily basis.
Just as things appear to be at the breaking point for the couple, Isabel reveals that she is pregnant. Owen soon comes around to the idea of being a father and convinces Isabel they should try the time tested method of resolving their issues through parenthood. Isabel’s only request is that Owen be more respectful of her family, and that Owen make up with a sister he hasn’t seen in over a decade.
This is when we learn that the visions that haunt Owen are based on real events. As a child, Owen lost his parents in a house fire he believes he started, which also left his sister, Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord), with scar tissue covering more than half of her body. She now lives with the siblings’ grandmother, Violet (Fionnula Flanagan), who treats Pearl like the disgusting outcast she believes herself to be. Owen was raised in the same house when he was younger, and now carries guilt for having left his sister behind.
The reunion goes from bad to worse at a delirious rate, with Violet and Pearl both exhibiting strange behavior that often borders on psychosis. Violet is a God-fearing woman who isn’t afraid to slut shame Isabel when discussion of the couple’s unborn child is unannounced. Pearl, on the other hand, lives a reclusive life witnessed largely through all-too-brief expressions of sexual curiosity and unpredictable mood swings. Owen and Isabel do their best to maintain their composure. It does not work as well as they would like.
As I sat and watched Owen confront his demons I felt that sinister pleasure that comes from watching a life come undone on the screen. Bates’ work always seems to scratch that part of the mind that we’re raised to believe cannot be trusted. His characters act and speak without any fear of consequence, as if they would happily have their words returned with a fist just as long as they could know their words were heard. The resulting impact on the world surrounding the characters is that everyone feels born of evil rather than good. They’re all searching for a way to be good while fighting some ever-present doubt that they are inherently evil and therefore unworthy of acceptance.
Grenier has never fully shed his Entourage persona, but Trash Fire makes the most compelling argument for life after Vincent Chase that we have seen so far. Likewise, the deliveries from both Trimbur and Flanagan are downright shiver-inducing. There is a part of each character’s heart that is ice cold, and each of the leads find a way to tap into that element in a way completely their own.
Films like Trash Fire often struggle to maintain their sense of tension because there is an almost constant need to be further developing the characters, and that again is the biggest fault with this largely mild-mannered thriller. The slow-burn build may be a little too prolonged for some, but those able to find entertainment in the hateful things the film’s tiny cast hurls at one another will be shocked by the final minutes of the third act. Bates has a knack for imagining things that feel too horrific to be real, yet they are grounded in such a way that it feels as if such horrors could take place in the house next door. Finding that balance is a skill that helps establish the film as something you won’t forget anytime soon, even if it is built on a fairly familiar premise.