When Owen is forced to confront the past he's been running from his whole adult life, he and his girlfriend, Isabel, become entangled in a horrifying web of lies, deceit and murder.
Richard Bates, Jr.
Richard Bates, Jr.
Trash Fire is the latest film from writer/director Richard (Ricky) Bates, Jr. I had the good fortune of screening his superb film Suburban Gothic (review) two years ago at the first Screamfest I covered for Horror Freak News.
So, saying I had high hopes and even higher expectations going in to the film last night (Trash Fire opened up the 16th season of Screamfest), would be a massive understatement.
Owen (Entourage’s Adrian Grenier) and his girlfriend Isabel (The Final Girls’ Angela Trimbur) have just celebrated their three year anniversary. Things are not going well in their relationship – it’s become stagnant, their sex life predictable and Owen is trying to stay off the sauce. Owen is a very no-nonsense guy and his tactlessness leads to hurtful and off-putting comments. When Isabel reveals that she’s pregnant, they make a deal. Owen must make amends with his estranged sister (the brilliant AnnaLynne McCord) and grandmother (The Others’ Fionnula Flanagan) before Isabel will agree to keep the baby and begin a family with a very difficult Owen. Owen’s mother and father died when he was young and his grandmother and sister are the only family he has left. Owen and Isabel take a trip to his grandmother’s rural homestead and the film turns from a quirky comedy/drama – into something quite dark.
I had but two small complaints about the film, thus keeping it from an absolute perfect score. There was such a beautiful rush and flow to the film, that when things began to drag slightly in the third act, it was noticeable. However, once the pace regains its footing, the sprint to the climax is almost inevitable and whoa – what a payoff!
With the introduction of Owen’s sister Pearl and Grandma – I felt as though the film lost some of its grounding. We’re so invested in Owen and Isabel’s issues/relationship, that when the two additional characters are added, it seemed as if that perfectly-constructed chemistry lost a bit of luster. That being said, both Pearl and Grandma are powerhouse characters – so you never lose interest. I just don’t feel as though that particular shift was as smooth as it could have been.
I was constantly marveling at Bates’ placement of characters within the frame. Every shot seemed as if it must have taken hours to set-up – and if that was the case, it paid off. I have also been a long-time fan of something Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme frequently uses. In Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia (among others), he shoots the two person conversations dead-on. Meaning that the actors, when “talking” to their scene partners are looking directly into the camera – as if the camera is their co-star. I’ve always loved the immediacy of this choice and the fact that it breaks the fourth wall in a way – engages the audience more easily. I can’t recall if this was a device used by Bates in Suburban Gothic, but it’s used to great effect in Trash Fire. And it’s at its greatest effectiveness in a dinner scene between Owen and Isabel and their friends played by Ash vs. Evil Dead’s Ray Santiago and Molly McCook. I’ve seen the dual “look at the camera” conversation before, but when it was employed in a four person conversation – it was magically bizarre and almost frantic. With these choices and the amazing editing, this was a stellar and stand-out scene.
Time and time again, I’ve said that these “writer/director” filmmakers should focus on their true gift. I truly believe that actual auteurs are hard to come by. And so many films I’ve reviewed, lo these many months – perfectly illustrate this problem. How many times have I seen a gifted director who wrote a crappy script? How many times have I seen a brilliant script with so-so direction? So many times you feel as though some judicious delegation would be in order. Sometimes, you’re just not good at everything.
But Bates is clearly one of those writer/directors who should carry such a coveted (and so rarely deserved) title. And you’re always hoping that a filmmaker didn’t initially present you with some sort of fluke. Suburban Gothic was a treasure, and now – with Trash Fire, Bates has proven himself solid and gifted. He’s certainly no fluke. And this means I should probably take a look at another of his feature films, Excision. I’ll put it on the list!
I was also jazzed by so many small touches – the biggest of which is the very last moment before the picture fades to black. I can’t say a word about it, but once you see the film, let me know what you think this “movement of a character’s hand” means. Speaking of that climax – it’s actually only a few seconds of running time in the final moments – where the audience is desperately waiting for a final reveal. It’s a painful bit of anticipation and dread, which feels like a five-minute wait. Moments like this, my friends – are what make a film special and prove that you’re in the hands of a master storyteller.
As our couple, Grenier and Trimbur take the inherent kookiness of their characters and the well-drawn relationship drama with which they are provided and simply run with it. Neither one of the characters (certainly not Owen) are terribly redeeming people, but the actors manage to make them engaging, sympathetic and fun. But it’s not all fun (even though the dark and biting humor of the dialogue is awe-inspiring) and when things get dire and even darker (this is the darkest of dark comedies), they match the power of their humor with the depth of their emotional scars. The characters are damaged and yet so intriguing – it’s hard to pinpoint any particular moment where Grenier and Trimbur shine — it’s all good! The two lead performances are perfectly even in quality and yet wildly all over the place as far as emotion. Certainly, this innate chemistry as well as their separate remarkable performances – are an easy highlight in Trash Fire.
Fionnulla Flanagan (who I’ve often suggested should have received Oscar attention for her stunning and chilling portrayal of Bertha Mills in 2001’s The Others) delivers another – frankly, Oscar-worthy performance. I mentioned that to Bates following the screening, and he replied along the lines that a film with these sort of characters (so wacky, nasty and broken) would never find such accolades. Well, you never know. And Flanagan’s pseudo-Margaret White religious fanaticism – has never been so much fun. She’s a perverse and wretched woman, but damn if you don’t immediately like her. On top of all of her laugh-out-loud line deliveries, Grandma is a very terrifying character.
In supporting roles you’ll find Criminal Minds’ Matthew Gray Gubler (who was the lead in Suburban Gothic), busy character actor Ezra Buzzington and Oscar-nominee Sally Kirkland – who appears in a hilarious cameo as Isabel and Owen’s therapist.
With sharp dialogue (“old lady skin flakes”), masterful performances from absolutely everyone and a stunning and abrupt (not necessarily surprising) climax, Trash Fire finds immediate placement on my favorites of the year list (stay tuned for those final revelations in December!)
Trash Fire has been (God have mercy on me for this one) burning across the film festival landscape, winning awards and critical acclaim. And I’m sure my avid readers of 2 will roll their eyes and say, “Does it really deserve all of this hype and overflowing loads of praise?” I say yes. Meaning, keep those “rolling” eyes open for a screening of the film near you.
The film is scheduled for release on November 3rd.