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Owen (Adrian Grenier) is a broken man, starting his story by explaining he had been waiting for his parents to die so he could commit suicide with no guilt. When they actually do, of course, he doesn’t go through with it and that just makes him worse. He is involved with Isabel (Angela Trimbur), a woman he has been dating for more than three years, though they are threadbare at best, in the final stages of a perverse co-dependency that is spelling their doom. This seems mostly to be Owen’s fault, who is apathetic to her and most everything else, cruel and unfeeling to a degree that makes him unbearable in social settings and barely tolerable at home. They go to counseling, but it’s futile. They are at an end.
Then she gets pregnant. It seems the final nail at first, but somehow, Owen recognizes it might be what he needs to make the turn at the corner and save the relationship. To do so though, he decides to commit and right the wrongs he has left behind. For Isabel, that means reconnecting with his family, whom she has never met. And here’s the twist. His mother and father died in a house fire that Owen believes he caused. More traumatic, his sister Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord) survived the blaze but with devastating scars that left her disfigured. She now lives with their grandmother Violet (Fionnula Flannagan), a repulsive, hostile woman Owen deeply loathes. And for good reason. Owen begs Isabel not to make him go but she insists. She soon learns though, this is one reunion they should have skipped.
Written and directed by Richard Bates Jr., Trash Fire is a twisted combination of two genres that is clearly divided at the halfway point, with the relationship drama of the first half abandoned for psychological horror in the second act, and while the prospect of a pretty decent, yet scathing examination of a young reckless couple has a lot of appeal, it is the latter half that does it better.
The very instant we arrive at Violet’s, things take a swing into darkness, with a disturbing moment when we see the grown Pearl, her face shrouded in locks of long stringy hair, dressed in a loose-fitting nightgown, peeking into a secret hole, watching Isabel settle into the guest room. She does so while slipping a hand under her gown and masturbating. Meanwhile, Violet reveals a brash, insulting personality where she calls Isabel a whore, and it only gets worse. And when we learn more about her true nature, she evolves into something far more menacing.
Bates creates a genuinely distressing sense of tension, but also seems fearless in trying to shock, in one moment for example, putting the elderly Violet on a sofa while she watches TV evangelists, her hands under her dress, between her legs. He teases relentlessly a look at Pearl, who is supposedly burned beyond recognition, having her skulk about the darkened house, becoming obsessed with Isabel. He also has his characters look directly in the camera throughout, which at times gives it a tone of invitation but more so, as intended, discomfort.
While the cast is small, all are very good, with Flanagan delivering another great performance though Trimbur is especially memorizing. She creates a powerfully-centered and engaging character that is simply sensational in a role that tasks her with following a difficult arc. She steers this ship from the start.
There is black comedy and then there is black comedy, and Bates gleefully dances along the latter, leading us down an increasingly shadowed path that ends in a paralyzing moment that changes everything about what the story is about and what it means. While there are stilted moments, and Grenier, who starts as the star but ends in the peripheral, is good, Trash Fire has much that is unexpected. One might dismiss what first appears like a broken narrative, but there is a lot murkily hiding in the reasons for it all, and connecting the one to the other makes this a satisfying, disturbing experience.
Director(s): Richard Bates Jr.
Actor(s): Adrian Grenier, Angela Trimbur, Fionnula Flanagan
Genre: Drama, Horror