Ever since 2012’s razor-sharp Excision (or 2008’s short film Excision, technically), writer/director Richard Bates Jr. has been slicing and dicing the horror genre with his pitch-black brand and stinging social takedowns. Excision tore into religion and social awkwardness, while Suburban Gothic employed a goofy paranormal detective – but Trash Fire only crescendos his darkest thoughts.
Humor pushes through vile, narcissistic, masochistic appropriations of false appearances, making Bates’ previous films look like kiddie content in comparison. No character bothers to filter their intentions, berating one another with the most toxic, hurtful dialogue that’ll have you laughing your way to Hell. Bates writes a painful arc that’s constantly torturing those caught in their own emotional inferno, holding onto signature quirks despite his most serious vision yet. It’s a lit fuse that never stops burning, until humanity is nothing but blown-away dream.
Adrian Grenier stars as Owen, whose life is a catastrophic disaster. His girlfriend Isabel (Angela Trimbur) is one last drunken outburst away from leaving, he lost all contact with his sister Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord) and he must live with the guilt of accidentally killing his parents. Owen doesn’t believe in happiness. Alcohol treats open wounds, but still can’t stop sporadic seizures from occurring. Oh, did I mention he’s also bulimic?
Yet even with all those demons raging inside, Isabel stands by the man she used to love, and pushes for some kind of reform. This brings Owen to his grandmother Violet’s (Fionnula Flanagan) rustic home, so he can finally reconnect with his long-lost sister. The same one he abandoned because she was too burned to escape with him…
Owen, on the surface, is an asshole. This is what we love. Bates writes a character who speaks his mind with blatant disregard for anyone else’s feelings, even those he truly loves. Every day is spent hiding from past atrocities seared into his brain like a forever-looping nightmare, which causes Owen to drag people down to – or past – his lowest of lows.
Grenier is too good at remaining stone-faced and remorseless, as he delivers Bates’ scripted humor with a perfectly sickening pitch. Charisma is spent on religious takedowns, belittling rants and insincere pleas of relationship imprisonment, but never without a hypnotizing quality of trainwreck thrills. Ongoing torment explodes off the screen through inner-visions of torched memories (visually created by Bates’ lens), addressing the seriousness of Owen’s numb state – if you couldn’t already tell by his putrid disrespect for life.
Despite my macabre words, Trash Fire is hilarious, whether it should be or not. Angela Trimbur stuns when pitted against Grenier’s soul crushing nihilism, turning tears into emotional pleas designed to defrost Owen’s frozen heart – but Bates’ strength lies in scalding-hot banter. We nervously laugh as Owen’s life goes up in flames, only because his overt douchiness leads to dumbfounding acts from a man who gives no f*#ks on an epic level.
Be it his crass dismissal of Isabel’s friends (why should he be forced to like them?) or his girlfriend’s first orgasm in too long coming from an unexpected mid-missionary seizure, Bates mines a broken relationship for comedy by way of character sacrifice. We love to hate Owen, but genuinely care for Isabel because the barbed-wire currently caging (and tearing apart) her swelling heart.
Then Bates’ film evolves from an insult-a-minute relationship deconstruction to a final plea of helplessness, spurred by Isabel’s announced pregnancy. Owen demands they have the child, proclaiming how great a dad he’d be, yet Isabel doesn’t buy it (especially after a particularly malevolent tirade about how stupid it’d be to have a child). She demands that Owen reconnect with Pearl, but has no idea just how much of a C-U-Next-Tuesday Owen’s grandmother Violet is (everyone else’s words).
We learn where Owen gets his lashing tongue from by Violet’s first words, when she immediately starts riding Isabel like a disillusioned televangelist-watcher would. Owen and Isabel find their bond strengthened by hatred directed at the both of them, thanks to Fionnula Flanagan’s proclamations of whorishness, disgust and classless upbringings. Flanagan fits right into Bates’ cast of bastards, picking up the harmful slack once Owen and Isabel start embracing each other’s love once again.
Mr. Bates is never one to flag normalcy, which brings us to Pearl – the poor girl trapped with a grandmother who curses her physical form. AnnaLynne McCord brings an immaturity to Pearl, proving how being a shut-in her whole life stunted any chances of personal growth. She won’t let people see her and eats alone, but most importantly, she takes a liking to Isabel – and detests Owen’s “fighting.” Pearl blames Owen for always causing conflict, either before their parent’s death, or now, after returning to Violet’s house. Pearl refuses her brother’s attempts at conversation, while pleasuring herself as a voyeur spying on Isabel.
Pearl’s unfortunate obsession causes tension to mount, while Violet spirals down her own faith-based drain filled with lies, deception and some murder for good measure. I’ll admit that Trash Fire may end in a somewhat expected fashion, but the path Bates’ characters take (including Matthew Gray Gubler’s religious brother to Trimbur’s Isabel) stays faithful to the rage-filled, always blazing disaster that stems from Owen’s corroded core. For as dashingly spiteful Grenier plays, Trimbur is twice the performer for not only verbally sparring against Owen, but still finding love inside Isabel that never escapes our human desire to embrace some kind of hope.
Richard Bates Jr. is one of the most exciting genre filmmakers working today, and Trash Fire only proves that statement as a true-blue fact. His stories are told with aggression and style, never shying away from an off-color darkness that exposes reality and perverts perception. Trash Fire is despicable, sinful fun, like in a “Diablo Cody meets your therapist’s worst nightmare” kind of way – but it’s also redemptive and bloody. What starts as a competition in shit-slinging eventually reveals itself to be a dissection of what hides underneath, shaping one’s self through trauma versus outer-appearances we wear like costumes.
Or, you can heed a more simple message – never trust innocent old ladies who touch themselves to gospel television. Ricky Bates, you merciless, sick sonofa…
Trash Fire blazes with pitch-black wit and a dark, volatile story of redemption so good you'll be laughing your way straight to Hell.