“Dumpster fire” has become the go-to description for 2016, and while this unpleasant thriller isn’t about our annus horribilis, writer/director Richard Bates Jr. captures two familiar states: the feeling of being trapped in a cycle of misery, and the growing dread that something worse is just around the corner. Bates spends the first half of Trash Fire raking the dying embers of a volatile relationship.
Exasperated Isabel (Angela Trimbur) is preparing to leave the boorish Owen (Adrian Grenier), but an unexpected pregnancy gives her pause. Her selfish and demanding boyfriend swears he’ll change, and Isabel challenges Owen to reconcile with his remaining family, which consists of judgmental grandmother Violet (Fionnula Flanagan) and scarred sister Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord), severely burned in the fire that killed their parents. These women live in gothic isolation, with suppressed sexuality and hair-trigger rage, and Owen’s return rekindles Violet’s fire-and-brimstone fantasies and brings Pearl’s long-simmering resentment to a boil.
Bates (Suburban Gothic) plays with horror tropes, juggling black comedy and suspense in scenes that tease a gory release but ultimately only emphasize how much members of the creative class can underestimate their backward kin. Isabel and Owen both have relatives who’ve weaponized guilt and shame, and Bates misses the opportunity to explore how growing up in unforgiving fundamentalist Christian households forged their personalities or contributed to their bitter dependency. Neither can distinguish between malicious moralizing and violent intent, and Isabel and Owen are ultimately punished for religious burnout, not the hell they built for themselves.
Review by Serena Donadoni
Released on November 4, 2016 by Vertical Entertainment
First published in The Village Voice, 2016.
Trash Fire is available on Netflix