The tone of a story can often be a problem when films are being touted as both bleak human dramas and twisted 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 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 often pretty inconsistent. The genre they’re going for is kind of vague and uncertain in the first act, but it becomes a mixed bag even after events come along. Even if they do shed more light on what they’re going for. Those expecting a follow up to director Richard Bates Jr.’s Excision may know what to make of all this, but bemusement is probably the more common reaction.
Owen (Adrian Grenier) is not a nice guy. Between his mental baggage and his physical ailments he has 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. She seems pretty upset about how he treats her God-fearing brother, but after three years of dealing with him she wants to rescue the romance for some reason. Beyond feeling sorry for a guy that has occasional seizures and frequent dietary issues her reasons are all pretty vague.
All the melodrama isn’t exactly engaging when the two leads dislike each other so much. It’s hardly a great example of screen chemistry, and their story isn’t exactly gripping. Adding to this 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 these quick images of his parent’s home on fire are just jarring and they’re not explained until much later. It drags its feet a lot which adds to the feeling of rigour. But eventually the story does reach a turning point – Isabel is pregnant. This development makes the couple suddenly U-turn on splitting up, as if their relationship would ever be good for raising a child. Then 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 he has to make an attempt at reconnecting with his estranged sister. Things become slightly more interest here when there’s a distinct shift in tone and 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 anything that was shown earlier, but his relatives are more intriguing characters. After a childhood accident involving a household propane supply gone wrong it seems that Owen left town to avoid the aftermath. As a result his scarred sister was left to live with their overbearing and religious grandmother Violet (Fionnuala Flanagan). Things pick up this the head of the family is introduced even if it starts to feel very uneven. The shift in focus from mundane drama to over-acting does start to blur the line between human drama and overt silliness. But at least in picks up the pace and starts to offer some genuinely entertaining moments.
Grandma is really not a nice lady so maybe it’s where Owen gets his manners from. In fact she’s so overtly awful that it’s the best part of the movie. She insults her guests, makes rude remarks about their unmarried status, and goes out of her way to be unpleasant to Isabel at every opportunity. Her 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 television. It’s plenty of fun to watch 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 first act. But this only goes so far, and in terms of actual horror the film is pretty sparse.
Owen’s disfigured sister Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord) creeps about refusing to see anyone, but she stops by to spy on Isabel in a couple of moments reminiscent of Psycho. The characterisation in general is pretty tepid, but she at least offers some degree of human suffering even if it’s very brief. There are a few predictable twists in the story Violet’s behaviour becomes more bizarre, but it never reaches a satisfying climax. There are no arcs for the two leads and there isn’t much in terms of real shock value. The problem is that it often 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 – peaking with a scene involving a rattlesnake in a toilet. Both threads are clichéd but neither one is given enough time to make it work.