Trash Fire (2015, dir. Richard Bates, Jr.)
Owen and Isabel have an extremely unhealthy relationship. He has a laundry list of neurosis and treats Isabel like a doormat. She openly despises him. For some reason, they seem unable to break this relationship off, kept in each other’s toxic orbits. Everything changes when Isabel despondently reveals she is pregnant. Owen appears to change his tune, but she explains she wants him to get back in touch with his estranged family. When Owen was a child, his parents were killed in a house fire he blames himself for. His sister lived, but suffered third-degree burns over her entire body and now lives with the acidic grandmother. The couple makes a trip to visit these two strange family members, and the secret behind that house fire slowly comes to light.
Like many horror films these days, Trash Fire has a lot of interesting pieces but fails to come together as any enjoyable experience. It’s the greatest flaw is the inability to settle on the tone. The first third of the film presents itself as a pitch dark comedy and arrival at the grandmother’s home has enough quirky strangeness that it feels like this is what the film will be. However, the last third of the movie goes completely off the rails and bounces back and forth between comedy and horror, before finally settling on pure nihilistic horror for the finale. At some moments it seems to want to comment on relationships, in others, it seeks to be a satire of fundamentalist religion. And for all it’s plot spasms it ends up equaling nothing at all.
I had previously seen Bates’ Excision, a horror film with similar problems. There is no arguing that he has a distinct style. His scenes are framed in the static medium and wide shots, with subjects dead center in the camera. A line of symmetry splits the subject down the middle, and they are typically flanked by set details on either side. This type of framing is so associated with Wes Anderson at this point that we are subconsciously pushed towards expecting dry comedy, and that appears to be the case…at first. Bates continues to use this framing even in scenes that he intends to evoke great horror. It just falls so flat, so hard.
I don’t have a problem with a film featuring unlikable protagonists, as long as it knows how to handle them just right. Bates does not, so when the tragedy of the finale occurs, I didn’t care because he’d done nothing to frame his protagonists in legitimate conflict with the antagonists. I guess the protagonists weren’t murderous, but they didn’t even exhibit charisma or charm to make me root for them. Unlikable doesn’t mean they have to completely unrelatable. Bates also features his star from Excision, Annalynne McCord as Owen’s scarred sister. She does fine with the material she is given, but I can’t help but imagine how a more nuanced actress could have made the character more interesting.
The worst thing about Trash Fire is that it is a dumb film that thinks it is very clever (the same problem Excision had, hm). Mr. Bates is not a bad filmmaker; he is just aiming to make a kind of film he isn’t necessarily suited for. There is a sense that he is somehow elevating the material when at its heart it is pure horror shlock. If he could embrace it for the particular horror subgenre it is and have fun with the material, he might have a decent flick.