Calling your movie Trash Fire is a bold move. Not only does it practically dare critics to write snarky headlines, it lets any and all potential viewers know that this thing is probably not going to be very fun to watch. And while it doesn’t include any literal blazing piles of garbage, Trash Fire is spiteful and unpleasant from beginning to end, using every technique at its disposal—from stinging dialogue to grotesque prosthetics to morbid black comedy—to make the audience uncomfortable. But if you find hateful people spewing venom at one another punctuated by random acts of violence amusing, then buckle up, you sick fuck. We’re about to go on a ride.
Entourage’s Adrian Grenier stars as Owen, a condescending alcoholic whose periodic seizures seem to be the only reason his equally miserable girlfriend Isabel (Angela Trimbur) stays with him. After an opening scene where Owen tells off his psychiatrist that’s sure to appeal to anti-authoritarians of the Fight Club school, the first half hour of the film plays as a sort of millennial take on Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, as Owen verbally eviscerates Isabel and she emasculates him right back. (Their pillow talk is especially mean-spirited.) That all changes once Isabel tells Owen she’s pregnant and he suggests they split an abortion, prompting her to banish him to the couch while she spends the night crying in their bed. This actually seems to affect the borderline sociopathic Owen, and to make amends he agrees to introduce Isabel to his only remaining family: his sister, who was badly burned in the fire that killed his parents, and his “crazy” grandmother, who, he assures her, makes him seem nice by comparison.
After the couple piles into their car and drives to the isolated Victorian house where Violet (Fionnula Flanagan) and Pearl (Excision’s AnnaLynne McCord, once again going “ugly” in burn-victim makeup) live a twisted, Carrie-and-Margaret White-type existence, the film takes a couple of right turns. First, once they’re surrounded by people even more horrible than they are—Grandma Violet is obsessed with policing other women’s sexual behavior, and tells Owen one night at dinner, “Your mother was a whore, your father a moron, and your sister an abomination”—Owen and Isabel make an effort to actually be nice to each other, and find, to their surprise, that they kind of like it. With this relief comes a tonal shift as well, as the film transitions from active nastiness to a bemused cynicism as the focus pivots to the deeply religious Violet’s violent hypocrisy. By the time Trash Fire finally comes together as a horror movie in the last act, you may actually start to feel sympathy for them. Well, some of them.
Based on this film, one can conclude that director Richard Bates Jr. has contempt for the following: organized religion, dinner parties, couples’ therapy, regular therapy, family, sex, food, and smoke detectors. None of this, particularly the organized religion bit, should come as a shock to those who have seen Bates’ earlier work, which has all been marked by the same caustic, morbid sensibility. But even compared to the aforementioned Excision, which dealt with similarly dark themes of oppressive faith and toxic family ties, Trash Fire may leave viewers feeling defeated.
Yes, Excision’s heroine was deeply fucked up, but at least she was a heroine. Here, we don’t understand the weirdos any better than their cartoonish oppressors, and that lack of sympathy takes away the gut-wrenching impact of its conclusion, leaving nothing but an orgy of adolescent nihilism. At least it’s a good-looking orgy of adolescent nihilism, thanks to some clever stylistic touches from Bates and cinematographer Shane Daly. And if hating everyone is kind of your thing, you might get a kick out of it.