Trash Fire is an ugly movie. Not in how it’s shot or performed, but in how it forces itself on you. Trash Fire isn’t depraved, necessarily, but it is miserable, a film that clearly gets off on rubbing your face in its myriad excesses. It’s some unholy combination of Christopher Durang, Andrzej Zulawski, and Rob Zombie, and, while that might sound intriguing, the movie whiffs as much as it hits. No one can say it’s not swinging for the fences, however.
Adrian Grenier stars as Owen, a sarcastic, emotionally stunted asshole with a traumatic past, a penchant for seizures, and a girlfriend, Isabel (Angela Trimbur), that seems to hate his guts. They live a comfortably upper-crust existence that’s beset by resentment, existentialism, and unfulfilling sex; when Isabel gets pregnant, however, she has to decide whether or not this is a relationship worth saving. That means forcing Owen to reveal the secrets of his past to her during a trip to see his demented grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) and burn-scarred sister (AnnaLynne McCord). Predictably, things turn south once they venture into the cruel madhouse of his memories.
Writer/director Richard Bates Jr. doesn’t favor subtlety. Everything from the language to the performances to the cinematography screams with provocation and self-awareness. Most conversations are filmed POV-style, with actors speaking directly and intensely into the camera. Two-shots are typically tight or framed in a way that emphasize claustrophobia. It’s the kind of movie that could make a viewer feel trapped, as if every character is speaking to them rather than to each other. That claustrophobia extends to the language, too, which is blunt and often mean-spirited, the conversation of people who enjoy nothing more than getting a rise out of the rubes. It’s alternately repellent and compelling, and never once resonates as anything remotely human.
That’s not the fault of the performers, however. Grenier would be wise to continue pivoting off his well-worn Entourage persona in such a fashion. As Owen, he achieves a slimy, yet momentarily vulnerable, menace by simply turning the dial just a notch or two away from his Vincent Chase prickishness. There’s a true confidence to his performance, which is impressive considering genre material is nowhere close to his bread and butter. Trimbur, who is known mostly for her comedic roles, is also quite good, evolving from a font of resentment early on to a forceful and soulful arbiter of her own fate by film’s end.
But neither Bates Jr.’s assured direction nor the strength of the performances can salvage the narrative, which feels overly convoluted and spackled far too much finery. Owen’s grandmother and sister never develop into their own characters, instead serving as harbingers of dread with motivations that never quite congeal. Trash Fire is also a tonal mess, oscillating wildly between broad comedy, psychological horror, strained drama, and combustible chaos. By the last shot, it’s hard to look back on the first and reconcile what came in between. That in itself isn’t bad, necessarily, but results in an experience that’s more frustrating than intriguing.
Bates Jr.’s directorial output thus far has all been centered around his own writing, and though he has a distinctive voice his chops behind the camera are infinitely more assured. Time and again, he creates memorable, frame-ready tableaux that lodge into the brain like a rusty hatchet. There’s also a fluidity to his camera, a confident pace that tells a story with every sweep or moment of stillness. It would be wonderful to see what he could accomplish with the work of someone who could meld his twisted aesthetic with a consistently gripping narrative. Because, in the end, Trash Fire’s ugliness is beautiful in its own way, but it’s also not the kind that you can’t not look away from.