Director: Richard Bates Jr.
Writer: Richard Bates Jr.
Producer: Lawrence Mattis, Matt Smith, David Lawson Jr.
Stars: Adrian Grenier, Angela Trimbur, Fionnula Flanagan, AnnaLynne McCord, Matthew Gray Gubler, Ezra Buzzington, Molly McCook, Ray Santiago, Sally Kirkland
To save a tumultuous relationship, a troubled man must reconnect with his disapproving grandmother and disfigured sister.
During his intro video for the film’s Screamfest 2016 screening, “Trash Fire” star Adrien Grenier said it best when he affectionately dubbed director Ricky Bates Jr. an “auteur nutjob.” That’s a sincere compliment Bates probably wouldn’t refute. It also surmises a strikingly great deal about the filmmaker with two accurate words.
Ricky Bates Jr. (credited onscreen as Richard, but I’ve yet to hear anyone in an interview or Q&A refer to him by any name other than Ricky) earns the first half of Grenier’s moniker by having a unique voice defined by a distinctive cinematic style and overlapping actors who are cerebrally synched to Bates’ atypical aesthetics. The “nutjob” half comes from dark emotional explorations almost anyone can relate to by daring to delve deep enough into personal experiences. Bates just keeps accessibility at arm’s length by realizing his takes on uncomfortable themes through quirky characters navigating a weird world that only resembles straight reality.
Part drama, part comedy, part thriller, part horror, and always part something else, Bates’ films openly scoff at anyone attempting to pin them down to specific genres or traditional summaries. With odd irony, being so consistently difficult to describe makes Ricky Bates films somewhat easy to review. Because it is a simple thing to say, if his previous movies “Excision” and “Suburban Gothic” (review here) hit the spot for black humor and horror, then “Trash Fire” will wedge in comfortably alongside them. At the same time, looking at those three films collectively as well as in order, I’m not sold on the notion that hitting this same spot is in the best interest of advancing art or entertainment.
Already medicated for sudden seizures and recurring visions of a house fire that killed his parents and disfigured his sister, Owen’s candidly brusque personality doesn’t make him easy to get along with. His psychiatrist can’t stay awake for their sessions and his frustrated girlfriend can’t stay interested for sex. Isabel wanted out of their relationship yesterday, but having accepted there is no on/off switch when it comes to those we love, the put-upon woman is begrudgingly in it for better or for worse, mostly for worse.
Unexpected news inspires Owen to recommit himself to Isabel. Things are going to improve, he promises. Isabel is willing to cosign Owen’s newfound hope on one condition: he must reconcile with his estranged grandmother Violet and the little sister he left behind following the fire. Owen warns Isabel she doesn’t know what she is asking. Yet the family reunion that comes next is more horrifically unbearable than either of them imagined.
Playing the “it’s like…” game, Ricky Bates Jr. identifies his film as “Psycho” meets “Harold and Maude,” another accurate simplification. “Trash Fire” is about confronting challenges in relationships, both romantic and familial, and the frightening honesty in its fiction can be unsettling to see.
Sitting in front of “Trash Fire,” I couldn’t help but relate the film to personal fears in my own current situation. Asynchronous sex drives, biological clock confusion, opening the door on closeted family skeletons perhaps best left locked away. For at least the first twenty minutes, I was paralyzed by how precisely “Trash Fire” was speaking to me on a personal level.
And then it wasn’t. Bates is a director who gives his cast freedom to explore their own space. One-take shots remain patient while those scenes take the long way to play out. Story follows suit, settling into a tempo unconcerned with urgency. This can be fine provided all of the above unifies in determining a singular destination. Except here, the result is a casually ADHD mood of meandering and melancholy in need of more finely tuned focus.
The chippy dialogue is enjoyable. The interactions where that dialogue takes place, not so much. Performances are strong, but “Trash Fire’s” characters lean more loathsome than likable. For instance, Fionnula Flanagan is outstandingly on point as Owen’s witchy grandmother, yet her personality is too archetypical to break through with an unanticipated dimension.
One characterization beyond reproach is Owen’s girlfriend Isabel. Angela Trimbur is tremendous in the role of someone hopelessly caught in a debilitating, codependent love. Trimbur reaps the benefit of Bates being an actor’s director by fully occupying her moments with welling-eyed stares and softly hissing words that alternately sell sympathy or sass in organic fashion. I had momentary difficulty placing her as the same actress who does the Tawny Kitaen striptease in “The Final Girls” (review here).
By design, “Trash Fire” doesn’t have a third act. It’s a bold gamble I believe is the movie’s best payout as the jarring conclusion hits in a hard way that the preceding 90 minutes ill prepare anyone to expect. It’s also indicative of the “take it or leave it” attitude that alienates audiences from identifying the appeal of a movie like “Trash Fire” on a commercial level.
“Trash Fire” is a simultaneous signal that Ricky Bates Jr. is maturing as an experimental artist, though his creations aren’t necessarily evolving at comparable speeds. Bates’ trademark techniques are always at work whether it be a rhythmic drone leitmotif to underscore comical dread or head-on angles of actors looking almost into the lens to offer an offbeat feel. That unusual vision could be dating itself too early, however.
“Excision” examined a high school mindset. “Suburban Gothic” advanced to that awkward transitional period between college and “real life.” “Trash Fire” continues on that arc into an adulthood consumed by coupling and convention. As Bates continues unavoidably aging, will his commentary, already under the radar with only niche reach, remain relevant? If “Trash Fire” represents the peak of what Bates can conceive, acquiring awareness outside an ever-tightening small circle of genre indie influence may remain an unachievable prospect.
Review Score: 60