By his own estimation, Owen (Adrian Grenier) is "a substance abuser with an ugly dick who's mentally ill-equipped to stand up to peer pressure". He wonders why on earth downtrodden girlfriend Isabelle (Angela Trimbur) stays by his side.
He has a point. He drinks too much and is consequently prone to occasional epileptic seizures - one time, memorably, during sex - which often leave her dealing with the aftermath of him shitting himself. He's bulimic. Whenever her bible-bashing brother Caleb (Matthew Gray Gubler) drops by to see how she's doing, Owen can't help but verbally abuse him. He doesn't like her friends either.
Oh, and he's frequently woken in the dead of night by dreams harking back to that time he accidentally killed his parents and disfigured his sister by starting a house fire.
It's hardly surprising, then, that Owen feels the need to attend regular sessions with psychiatrist Florence (Sally Kirkland). Unfortunately for him she's fairly useless at her job, even going so far as to fall asleep during one such session just as he's really starting to pour his heart out.
But Isabelle is faithful to her man. Her excuse is "you can't help who you fall in love with". Having said that, her patience is starting to wear thin. Things come to a head when Isabelle discovers she's fallen pregnant.
This leads to an almighty bust-up between the pair, in direct relation to Owen's selfish, heartless ways - he even goes so far as to suggest she has an abortion. He wins her back by going to her place of work the following day and reading out a fictional obituary he's prepared for her. Isabelle thaws but, that night at home, she insists that he builds bridges with his remaining family if they are to move forward.
So, after some deliberation, Owen agrees to travel with Isabelle and visit what remains of his family: his crazy grandmother Violet (Fionnula Flanagan) and his mysterious sister Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord). He's daunted as he's not spoken to them since his parents' funeral, but he's had an epiphany and now wants to start a family with Isabelle ... and she insists he needs to reconnect with his own family before he can start one with her.
This is the point where we get some enjoyable flashbacks which clue us in on his family's dysfunctional background, Violet's violent nature and the full facts of how that fatal fire was started. These are rolled out to us as Owen and Isabelle make their way to Violet's house by car, setting the scene for the tense scenarios that are about to come ...
My synopsis takes us about 35 minutes into TRASH FIRE and to go any further seems unjust. You're better off not knowing what comes next: instead, see the film and enjoy the expert shift in tone.
What I will say is that the first act of the film - the latest from writer-director Richard Bates Jr, the guy who gave us the enjoyable fan favourite EXCISION - is essentially a series of enjoyable, often genuinely amusing vignettes, which place characters in awkward social situations and get by on smart, sarcastic dialogue.
Grenier is a charismatic, likeable lead. This helps because he's playing such a shit that I imagine a less capable actor would fail to breathe warmth into such an arsehole character. Trimbur makes for a believable foil, providing the audience's moral guide while remaining just hard-nosed enough to remain believable.
Once this pair meets up with Violet, they've entered darker territory and our leads take a step back to let Flanagan shine. She's a complex creature, paradoxically puritanical and evil, and so brilliantly realised. You know that these kids are like flies that have just got stuck in a spider's web, the moment they enter her abode.
And of course, there's McCord, the star of EXCISION who returns here to play another intensely unstable ticking time-bomb. She nails it with edgy skill, of course.
Some twee alt-rock songs on the soundtrack nestle alongside the early barbed relationship gags, Bates Jr clearly aiming his film at the same "indie chic" area populated by the likes of Lucky McKee. But his script and his cast are thankfully strong enough to steer this away from seeming too contrived. Shane Daly's attractive, light cinematography is another clear asset. The bleak final act rewards any viewers who up until that point were having doubts about TRASH FIRE.
While perhaps not as instant as EXCISION (this only really becomes a horror film in the last 20 minutes), TRASH FIRE flows better, more naturalistically, and exhibits Bates Jr's growing strengths both as writer and director.
Lionsgate have released the film onto DVD in the US. It was presented to SGM for review as an online screener link. Presented in 16x9 widescreen, the HD photography allows for clean, detailed and vibrant visuals. English audio is equally without issue, offering a solid and well-balanced 2.0 mix.
TRASH FIRE is definitely worth checking out, and it's left me looking forward to seeing where Bates Jr goes next.
Review by Stuart Willis
|Released by Lionsgate|