“I was practically hate-fucked into existence.” Yikes.
Humour doesn’t come much blacker than it does in Trash Fire, the third film from director Richard Bates Jr. Having already proven proficient in both gallows eccentricity and jarring, shocking imagery in Suburban Gothic and Excision, what follows here is a work that feels both darker and more accessible than his previous work, and continues to establish him as one of the genre’s most intriguing, original voices.
In a grimly hilarious opening sequence, Owen (Entourage‘s Adrian Grenier) begins pouring his heart out in his therapist’s office. As he dives deep into his suicidal thoughts and brutally relives his parents’ death, the shot switches to show his shrink has fallen asleep, and he leaves in disgust (“Go fuck yourself, Florence” should be 2016’s most quoted line). You’ll laugh against your better judgement, and that’s as good a summary of Trash Fire as you’ll find – the tone is set, and Bates never backs down.
An egomaniacal narcissist, Owen should, by rights, be totally unwatchable. Desperately unlikeable and wildly inconsiderate to those around him, we shouldn’t find ourselves invested in his fate. However, as he attempts to make amends with long-suffering girlfriend Isabel (Angela Trimbur) and they head to the country to reconcile with his estranged, God-fearing grandmother and younger sister, it’s difficult not to be intrigued.
As the film unfolds, some might baulk at just how long they’re expected to watch hateful people say and do hateful things. However, Trash Fire commits singularly to its vision, and is all the stronger for it. Strong central performances from Grenier and Fionnula Flanagan (electric here as Owen’s waspy grandmother Violet) are a fitting compliment to both Bates’ darkly quotable writing and his ominous, cold direction. As the mystery surrounding Owen’s sister Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord, continuing to do her best work alongside Bates) amplifies in the film’s closing third against a mounting theme of squirm-inducingly funny religious hypocrisy, its simmering, disquieting tension builds to a shattering, unforgettable finale. One of the year’s best genre films.