In less than ten years, filmmaker Richard Bates Jr. has made quite the impact in the world of independent horror. His short film, Excision, led to a stunning 2012 feature film version, his follow-up, Suburban Gothic, was a blistering, supernaturally-infused small-town yarn and with his latest movie, Trash Fire, Bates Jr. takes on adulthood and dysfunctional families.
For the most part, Trash Fire succeeds as a caustic tale of obsession, forgiveness, and the trappings of modern religion, although admittedly things start off a bit rough with the introduction of Owen (Adrian Grenier). We learn almost immediately that Owen is a complete asshole, as he abrasively chats with his therapist (Sally Kirkland) about his past and his general disdain for everyone and everything. Owen’s destructive nature is spilling over into his relationship with longtime girlfriend Isabel (Angela Trimbur), but once she reveals that she’s pregnant, Owen decides he’s ready to become a decent human being, with Isabel insistent that his transformation begins with him confronting his past.
Owen and Isabel set out to visit his estranged grandmother (the fiery Fionnula Flanagan) and sister, Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord), but once they arrive, they realize their presence isn’t necessarily a welcomed one and soon enough, decades of secrets are revealed, leading up to a shockingly violent finale.
It may not necessarily be for everyone, but I dig Bates’ somewhat misanthropic voice as a storyteller and with Trash Fire, he scathingly tackles his own bout of depression through the character of Owen, someone who is so abrasive and hateful in nature that he truly is an off-putting protagonist for us to be engaged with as viewers.
Owen’s brutally caustic nature even makes it hard for us to sympathize with him once we meet his even more screwed-up family members that clearly have impacted his own acerbic persona over the years. Grenier has been an actor I have never softened to, but I will admit that by the time Trash Fire’s third act rolls around, I actually begin to like him and understand just why someone sane and rational like Isabel would stay with someone like Owen for three years now.
It’s early on in Trash Fire where it becomes very evident that Isabel is going to be the emotional center for this story and overall, Trimbur does a commendable job of bringing warmth and a sense of sensitivity needed to balance out the film’s otherwise pitch-black comedic tone. Flanagan is a spitfire as Owen’s religious zealot of a grandmother who uses her own razor-sharp wit to manipulate everyone around her and isn’t afraid to get nasty, either. McCord, who was beyond brilliant in the aforementioned Excision, once again ups the creep-out factor here, but she is sadly underutilized in Trash Fire, turning the role of Pearl into more of a boogeyman than a fully-realized character. It’s a shame, too, as McCord is pretty great in the scenes we do get with her.
One thing I really appreciated about Bates’ work in both Excision and even Suburban Gothic was that he was never afraid to dig deep with his characters, regardless of how messy it would get for viewers, and I feel like with Trash Fire, we don’t get nearly as deep as we should with Owen and all the women in his life. We get hints of the turmoil that Owen is in—living with the constant torment of killing his parents has manifested itself in the form of an eating disorder, for example—but Bates never really goes any further into Owen’s issues or why we as audiences should want him to become a better person and hopefully a decent father down the line. This resulted in me feeling a bit disconnected from the story at times, wondering just where Trash Fire was trying to lead us in the end.
Trash Fire does feature another certified batshit Bates-esque ending, though (this being a compliment, of course), but it lacked the emotional wallop of Excision by a country mile. I’m not saying both films should take the same approach at all, but his latest just felt akin to getting smashed in the face by a door more so than the emotional shell of a person I became after watching Excision’s finale (still one of the best gut-punch moments in modern horror history).
While Trash Fire may not be nearly as seamless as his previous efforts, I’m a big fan of Bates’ mordant sensibilities as a storyteller and enjoyed Trash Fire, flaws and all, simply because I’d rather watch a director who takes some chances and not necessarily hits all the right notes, than some guy just making the same movie over and over again. The risks may not always pay off in Trash Fire, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a uniquely compelling film worth watching in there, either. Excision made me an instant fan of Bates and Trash Fire just further demonstrates that his often-sardonic vision is much needed in today’s genre world.
Movie Score: 3/5