TRASH FIRE (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 31 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Disturbing Violence/Behavior, Strong Sexuality, Nudity and Language

Directed by: Richard Bates Jr.

Written by: Richard Bates Jr.

Starring: Adrian Grenier, Angela Trimbur, Fionnula Flanagan, AnnaLynne McCord, Sally Kirkland, Matthew Gray Gubler & Ezra Buzzington

I loved the hell out of director/writer Richard Bates Jr.’s directorial debut EXCISION. This twisted little teen comedy crossed with a psychological body horror flick was one of my favorite horror films of 2012 and I was even quoted on that film’s DVD cover (from the now non-existent DeadFilm.net). I skipped Bates’s sophomore effort SUBURBAN GOTHIC because it just didn’t look appealing to me, but was ecstatic when I heard he was returning to more twisted “human-based” horror-comedy territory with TRASH FIRE. Having now seen this film, I can say that TRASH FIRE is a massive downgrade from Bates’s earlier effort. TRASH FIRE is an unfocused, muddled mess that has lots of potential and yet rarely manages to capitalize on any of it.

Owen (Adrian Grenier) and Isabel (Angela Trimbur) are a cynical couple who hate each other’s guts. Somehow, they have managed to stick together for three long years. After their rocky relationship hits an all-time low and Isabel reveals that she’s unexpectedly pregnant, Owen decides to try to fix their wavering romance. Together, the dysfunctional couple venture out to reunite with Owen’s ultra-religious grandmother Violet (Fionnula Flanagan) and his horribly disfigured sister Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord). As their visit becomes increasingly uncomfortable, disturbing secrets come to light and it becomes clear that the couple have placed themselves in mortal danger.

TRASH FIRE kicks off with so much promise. Early scenes of Owen and Isabel’s over-the-top, emotionally abusive relationship generate tons of twisted laughs. Though this first act may not feel like it is indicative of a horror-comedy, it was highly entertaining to watch and developed this couple in a strong way. After the opening 20 minutes pass, things hit a downward spiral. Richard Bates Jr. sets up a lot of potential for twisted happenings and a unique combination of sick laughs and stomach-churning scares. However, he just isn’t able to pull that off as the last hour of the film devolves into a hodge-podge of half-developed plot threads, awkwardly shifting tones, and (I’ll say it again) lots of missed potential.

There’s just something so unfocused about TRASH FIRE’s uneven mixture of various subplots and would-be shocking revelations. Things finally get interesting when a big exposition dump drops an unexpected bombshell, but the film does nothing with this new plot revelation either. Instead, yet another sudden shift in tone is milked for two scenes that have no pay-offs and then become altogether inconsequential by the film’s conclusion. Whereas Bates’s EXCISION left me stunned, shocked, and wanting to immediately watch that film again, TRASH FIRE left me shrugging my shoulders, hanging my head, and disappointedly asking, “That’s it?”

As far as the cast goes, Adrian Grenier and Angela Trimbur are the biggest stand-outs. I’d love to see a darker-than-dark, cynical comedy about their characters experiencing a severely dysfunctional romance. When the setting changes to Owen’s grandmother’s home, the film’s focus drastically shifts away from the two of them. Instead, we get an over-the-top religious grandmother who’s amusing to watch at first and then quickly becomes boring. Also, AnnaLynne McCord is underused as Owen’s scarred sister and only occasionally pops in to further the already flimsy plot along.

It might seem like I’m being unnecessarily harsh in comparing TRASH FIRE to Bates’s earlier (more creative and successful) EXCISION. However, directors are supposed to improve their craft over time and get better with experience. I wanted to love this movie, but TRASH FIRE feels like it was filmed while the script was still being brainstormed. The constantly shifting tone becomes distracting, half of the characters are flat-out boring, and the film seems to build up to a whole lot of nothing. There are redeemable qualities. The opening 20 minutes are undeniably hilarious, with Adrian Grenier and Angela Trimbur serving as saving graces in the messy narrative. Also, the cinematography is flat-out amazing for a low-budget production. Despite these positives, TRASH FIRE is aptly titled in the worst way possible.

Grade: D+