The tone of a story can often be a problem when considering films that are being touted as both bleak human dramas and twist horror comedies. The balancing act needed to keep all those plates spinning requires a lot of coordination after all, and Trash Fire has a lot of elements to try and mesh as the story unfolds. While a few moments do manage to reach the dark laughs you might be expecting, a lot of it is pretty inconsistent overall. The genre they’re going for is kind of vague and uncertain in the first act; this is a mixed bag even after events come along to later shed more light on what they’re going for here. Those expecting a follow up to Excision, the previous film by director Richard Bates Jr. may not know what to make of all this, but I think it’s a reaction most viewers will share.
Owen (Adrian Grenier) is not a nice guy. Between his mental baggage and his physical ailments, there are a lot of issues which are compounded by his overwhelmingly negative attitude towards life. He doesn’t get on with his shrink and he has problems with alcohol. He also lacks respect for his on-off girlfriend, so it’s not a surprise that their relationship seems to be on its last legs. What exactly Isabel (Angela Trimbur) sees in him to begin with is a mystery that this story never explains, beyond feeling sorry for a guy that has occasional seizures and frequent dietary issues. She seems pretty upset about how he treats her God-fearing brother too, but after 3 years of dealing with him she wants to rescue it for some reason.
The romantic melodrama isn’t exactly engaging when the two leads dislike each other so much, it’s hardly a great example of screen chemistry. The grey visual palette is very bland, and the distracting amount of static medium shots as they face each other sat in chairs at home or in restaurants makes it feel really dry. For a long stretch any hints at comedy or horror are almost completely absent beyond a series of sarcastic comments as they bicker endlessly. There are some suggestions at Owen’s childhood being a cause for his outlook but the quick images of his parent’s home on fire are jarring and not explained until much later. It drags its feet a lot before reaching a turning point – Isabel is pregnant. This development makes the couple suddenly U-turn on splitting up, and out of nowhere they decide that if Owen wants to be a father he has to learn to respect family values; which Isabel decides will mean reconnecting with his estranged sister.
There’s a distinct shift in tone as Owen explains why his parents aren’t looking after his only sibling. Not only are the images used to tell this backstory more stylish than what came earlier, but his relatives are more interesting as characters. After a childhood accident involving a propane supply gone wrong it seems that he left town, leaving his scarred sister to live with their overbearing grandmother. The shift in focus to religious crackpots however starts to blur the line between human drama and plain silliness, particular when the head of the family Violet (Fionnuala Flanagan) is introduced. But at least in picks up the pacing and starts to offer some genuinely entertaining moments.
Grandma is not a nice lady, maybe it’s where Owen gets it from. In fact she’s so awful that it’s the best part of the movie; she insults her guests, makes remarks about their unmarried status, and goes out of her way to be unpleasant to Isabel whenever possible. The performance stands out and instantly injects a certain energy to the proceedings. It may come off as absurd in a few scenes (particularly those which show what she gets up to while fire and brimstone preachers are on the TV) but it’s fun to see at least. It’s the closest they get to delivering dark humour, and it’s a shame they didn’t get to it faster after a fairly stiff introduction.
In terms of actual horror on the other hand it’s pretty sparse. Owen’s disfigured sister Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord) creeps about the place refusing to see anyone, but she stops by to spy on Isabel in a couple of moments reminiscent of Norman Bates in Psycho. The characterisation in general is pretty tepid, but she at least offers some degree of human suffering and drama, despite how brief it is. There are a few twists in the story that are predictable enough more Violet starts to act even weirder than before, but it never reaches a satisfying climax. There are no arcs for the protagonists and there isn’t much in terms of shock value to sate those looking for bloody thrills. The problem is that at times this all feels like two different ideas fighting for attention. While the pregnancy drama tries to attain some sense of seriousness, there’s just too much crazy zealotry which peaks in a ridiculous scene involving a rattlesnake in a toilet bowl. Both sides of the coin are equally clichéd of course, but neither is given the necessary amount of time to make things truly work.