Bonfire of the Sanities
Fear of family, of intimacy, and of letting your guard down and simply enjoying life once in a while are a few of the themes and issues you’ll find bouncing around in the offbeat, subtly effective Trash Fire, the latest tongue-in-dry-cheek horror/comedy from Richard Bates Jr., whom horror geeks should remember from odd, winning indies like Excision (which Brits can watch here) and Suburban Gothic.
Adrian Grenier and Angela Trimbur play Owen and Isabel, an unhappy couple who bicker a lot – mainly because Owen is a brusque, bossy jerk with very few redeeming qualities. Isabel seems like a perfectly normal woman – aside from the fact that she refuses to dump this petulant, sardonic man-child. Desperate to force Owen to lower his guard, drop the attitude, and appreciate what he has (namely, her), Isabel insists that they spend the weekend with Owen’s estranged grandmother (a shockingly nasty Fionnula Flanagan) and burn-scarred sister (AnnaLynne McCord) at his childhood home. Big mistake.
Whereas most indie horror films with this sort of premise would quickly devolve into A) supernatural weirdness, B) psychological lunacy, or C) outright mayhem, Mr. Bates opts to settle on askew, off-kilter, and quietly compelling character beats. It’s no surprise that Owen’s family is harboring all sorts of animosity for one another, but it’s Isabel’s presence that seems to offer a respite from all the bad blood, deep-seeded guilt, and non-stop bickering. For a while, at least.
It’s Owen’s fault this his little sister is covered with horrific burn scars, you see, and that’s only one of the reasons he wants nothing to do with his past; but, just like in real life, it often takes a kick in the ass from someone else to make us face up to our darkest memories. So there’s all that for Owen to deal with, plus it seems like his grandmother – who is sometimes freakishly weird but is generally just a mean-spirited bitch – has no interest in letting Owen move beyond his checkered past. Bates captures that “estranged” feeling perfectly through Owen’s reluctance, but then he amplifies the alienation by introducing all sorts of bizarre behavior that (hopefully) none of us have to deal with when visiting old relatives.
What works best about Trash Fire is its sense of calmness and restraint. This approach is often referred to as a “slow burn” when it comes to thrillers, but Trash Fire is more of an appreciably uncomfortable dark comedy than a full-bore scare-fest. The two leads are fantastic together, creating the sort of tense, strained boyfriend/girlfriend relationship that we’re all familiar with. The question of “Why doesn’t Isabel just dump this troublesome jerk?” slowly transforms into “Will Isabel be able to help this unhappy grump defeat his childhood demons?”
It’s about loyalty, basically, and the quick, sharp interplay between Grenier and Trimbur keeps Trash Fire afloat even through its few dry moments. Bonus points go to Ms. Flannagan, a normally adorable Irish woman who seems to really enjoy playing such a rotten bitch for a change; Matthew Gray Gubler, who pops up to steal a few scenes as Isabel’s busybody brother, and AnnaLynne McCord, who provides a tragic and pivotal performance, despite barely showing her face at all.
Bottom line: the next time you’re forced to spend a weekend with estranged relatives who don’t seem to care for you very much, give Trash Fire a quick spin. It’s sure to make you feel just a little bit better about your own family issues.