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Movies often tend to make heroes out of bad guys, or at least bend stories around their questionable ambitions so as to earn our sympathies. Even though we know they are on the wrong side of the law, we can’t help but become entrenched in their plight, in good films, drawn to the humanity the characters become defined by. From Bonnie and Clyde to Heat to countless others, our fascination with the criminal life has made for some great moments in movies. With Trespass Against Us, the bad guys are once again in the driver’s seat, and while it suffers from a problematic ending, it is nonetheless a well-made, tension-filled film with some truly good performances.
Deep in the West Country of England, a small, close-knit community of traveling troublemakers are camped out in a woodland hideaway. Led by the patriarchal Colby Cutler (Brendan Gleeson), the group spend their nights around the campfire drinking and hearing the same stories after passing the days causing mayhem. Among them is Chad (Michael Fassbender), Colby’s son who has kids of his own and and devoted wife (Lyndsey Marshal). He’s growing tired of the life but breaking from the caravan is no easy job, especially with his criminal background and no opportunities.
The real problem is Colby, who overlooks the lot with an iron hand, embittered by his past and the rebellious nature of Chad. He chides his son for wanting to give his children an education and wanting to work outside the crew. He belittles the school system for brainwashing students, calling evolution and round-Earth teachings bollocks. He pressures the men in the group to commit acts of vandalism, to strive for anarchy, and steal whatever they can from wealthy estates, including one that has lasting consequences. Unruly is the only rule.
Directed by Adam Smith, Trespass Against Us is a dialogue-heavy film that barely needs a single word, its fast-paced, kinetic energy thick with compelling visuals that propel it forward at breakneck speed. While the densely-accented characters leave a good majority of the movie somewhat incomprehensible, Smith uses this to the film’s advantage, treating the lengthy exchanges like a twisted bomb fuse where the words spit out like sparks. Not all of it works, and there are issues with pacing, but the themes are solid, and the performances gripping.
That’s led by Fassbender, who once again proves himself an actor of considerable skill, creating a deeply affecting character that simmers with contempt for an imbalance that he can’t seem to correct, surrounded by the hate his father preaches and a future he so desperately craves. His equal is Marshall, as Chad’s wife, playing a woman in love with a man who she knows wants more for them all but is forever chained to his mistakes. As the repercussions of those mistakes crowd closer and closer and begin to encircle tightly around him, escape seems impossible.
Then there’s Gleason, a powerful presence in any film in which he is cast, one of those actors who elevates a movie simply by being in it. Reigning over the clan like a tracksuit king, he wanders about the rundown, disheveled camp site, with beat-up camper cars positioned like circle of wagons. He’s too old to take to the action like he once did, so he sits, plump in waiting back home as his boys wreak havoc. There is a menace to him that seems always ready to unleash, and yet his power comes more from his blinded faith in his own distorted truths that have made those under him lumber about like cultist.
The story is pretty straight-forward, with most of it being Chad’s constant battle to free himself of Colby while authorities press in after linking him to a particularly troublesome crime. As Chad tries to give good direction to his son, he does what he can before the inevitable comes. The movie makes an odd choice at its finale though, with a peculiar close that ends with a moment that has its emotional tugs, but lacks the real punch the rest of the movie builds up too, which is unfortunate since the crackling pace and brimming sense of a coming altercation seems just a push away.
Trespass Against Us is a strong directorial debut from Smith, who handles action well (there are some spell-binding car chases), and builds tension the right way. While some moments trip up a bit of the tone here and there, the impactful story of two fathers and two sons is a good one.
Director: Adam Smith
Writer: Alastair Siddons
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Brendan Gleeson, Lyndsey Marshal
Genre: Action, Thriller