Trespass Against Us opens like it’s an action movie, beginning by throwing you right into the middle of a car chase, or perhaps more accurately, a joy ride. It’s a nice touch for a film that, on paper, sounds like a story that’s been told many times before. Immediately we’re confronted with a family of characters that is lively, compelling, and unsettlingly reckless, but distinctive, allaying fears that this may be material that feels too familiar.
The Cutler family, we eventually learn, are a clan of nomadic thieves, burglarizing wealthy British estates before fleeing home to their caravan of trailers. Their patriarch, Colby, played by Brendan Gleeson, runs the show but with a bit of detachment. He’s past his prime but still the prime holder of power and influence in the group, deciding where the next job will take place, passing on his brand of wisdom to the children, and generally looking menacing in that most menacing of outfits, the tracksuit.
His son, Chad, serves as the audience’s way in. Michael Fassbender has a way of getting the viewer on his side no matter what – as Chad, he gives a textured portrayal of a man divided between the family he was born into and the family he wants to establish for himself, which are at odds. There’s an ease with which Fassbender slips into roles like these. He can transform into someone like Steve Jobs, but with a character like Chad he can give a performance that feels far less performative and more immediately recognizable and relatable as a human being (I’m not sure what’s harder to do, but I kind of think it’s the latter).
Chad’s reluctance to continue on in the family business comes to a head about midway through the movie, when Colby requires him to take the lead on a new job. This takes on the aura of the “one last job” movie trope for Chad, so we know something is going to go awry. It’s also the sequence when the film feels most alive, and by extension, we get to experience the thrill of the work that has presumably kept Chad a part of it for so long. In fact, any scene where he’s behind wheel of a car is full of life and joy. They’re literally joy rides. It’s mentally, physically and legally taxing, but we see the appeal. If the film drags in its other sections, it’s appropriate – jobs like these break up the monotony of the Cutler’s daily lives. It certainly beats chatting around a garbage fire.
Allusions to humanity’s animal nature and the hypocrisy and delusion of the Cutlers’ unique take on Catholicism give Trespass Against Us some philosophical meatiness. Colby, as he pontificates to anyone in his congregated midst, insists that humans cannot have evolved from apes. The irony, of course, is that the Cutlers have been groomed to behave in ways that could be described as animalistic. They’re essentially a pack of wolves. Even Chad acts often on pure impulse, even though he can articulate precisely what he’s doing and why with a casually spoken phrase like, “I feel like hurting you.”
A fantastic score by The Chemical Brothers adds some emotional heft to support flawless performances all around. In addition to Fassbender and Gleeson, Lyndsey Marshall stands out as Chad’s wife, tough-minded and determined to free her children from their current environment, and smart enough to realize she can’t do it by herself. Rory Kinnear also shines as the policeman dogging the Cutlers but confined by the constraints of the law. He plays it with the right level of smugness to keep the audience on the side of the criminals.
That said, Trespass Against Us doesn’t seem to want us to sympathize with this band of thugs too much. There’s a disconnect in the movie’s vibe that I took as an intentional way of keeping the audience at arm’s length. At the same time, we recognize them as people, and there are aspects of the Cutlers that are relatable, at least to a certain degree (a playful final scene may undercut this or solidify it. I can’t decide). We’re not meant to fall in love with these characters, but to better understand and empathize as best we can with them.