Maybe it’s just a side effect of first appearing on screen as a glistening mountain of Spartan beefcake, but arrogance is probably the trustiest tool in Michael Fassbender’s arsenal. As an actor, he’s often most enthralling when portraying characters—a tech guru, a master of magnetism, a haughty android—with serious superiority complexes. That’s not an accusation you could really lob at Chad Cutler, the illiterate small-time outlaw Fassbender plays in Trespass Against Us. It’s hard to be too arrogant, after all, when you’re just one of a whole unruly brood, born into a life of scrounging, shit-kicking, and low-stakes crime. Fassbender doesn’t leave his charisma at the door—his Chad has a mischievous streak, conveyed through the star’s trusty tiger’s grin, and a way with an English curse word. But even a flush of rakish charm can’t hide the insecurity and self-loathing Chad feels about his circumstances.
The novelty of seeing this leading man detached from his signature self-regard is, well, the only thing especially novel about Trespass Against Us, a scraggly and much too familiar British family drama. The best thing about the film is Brendan Gleeson as Colby, the burly patriarch of the Cutler family. Perpetually decked out in a black track suit, Colby is a backwards blowhard who encourages his kids and grandkids’ worst impulses, proudly announces his disbelief that the world is round (it looks pretty flat from where he’s standing), and makes up flavorful idioms like “Hell hath no fury like a locked-up super goat.” (It makes a little more sense in context. A little.) Colby is a monstrous movie dad, no doubt—he masterminds his sons’ misdeeds, then throws them under the bus when they dream about something better. But Gleeson is having too much fun in the part for the guy to be bad company. He’s likably unlikable.
Dramatically, Trespass Against Us concerns Chad’s growing, largely unarticulated desire to pull himself, his wife Kelly (Lyndsey Marshal), and their two children, Tyson (Georgie Smith) and Mini (Kacie Anderson), out of the makeshift trailer-park his father has carved into the outskirts of polite society. The family business is an amusingly small-potatoes crime spree—lots of speeding around in freshly painted jalopies, then pillaging the buildings they crash into—and the local cops all know that the Cutler boys are responsible, even when they can’t catch them. The backroad chase scenes, of which there are several, all seem to end with the characters fleeing their vehicles and taking cover from a low-flying helicopter. Director Adam Smith, a BBC veteran making his feature debut after helming a few episodes of Doctor Who, stages these brief crime-flick detours with energy, but not enough to stop a viewer from wishing they were watching the (imaginary) John Hillcoat version instead.
And that’s the biggest problem with Trespass Against Us: Try as its talented cast does to pump some life into these desperate archetypes, it’s impossible not to draw unflattering comparisons with other, better films. Screenwriter Alastair Siddons modeled this foul-mouthed hooligan clan on a real, legendary outlaw family squatting on the fringes of England’s Cotswolds region. But there’s no sense of detail to the characters, save what the actors provide them—no qualities that feel ripped from experience, as opposed to a library of kitchen-sink classics. Like Chad himself, Trespass Against Us could stand to cut itself loose from the family tree. And after the excessive sentimentality of the film’s climax, Fassbender could stand to get back in touch with his arrogance—or at least redirect some of it to his script-selecting process.