I spoke with writer/director Ricky Bates, Jr. a couple years back at a screening of his first feature “Excision”, which, at its lightest, is a pitch (and I mean pitch)black comedy. It was one of the more hilarious and twisted interviews I’ve “conducted”…. perfect, I thought, how that film reflected his sensibilities—a coming of age story for psycho-thriller enthusiasts.
His follow-up, “Suburban Gothic”, was decidedly less grim, more of a Coscarelli-inspired style ghost story/fantasy. His newest flick, “Trash Fire”, which made its way through Sundance this year, ventures into slightly different territory, ostensibly an extension of Bates’ own relationship experience (I say that because by admission, a mini-autobiography could’ve been extracted from“Excision”—one particularly disturbing parallel I will not share).
“Trash Fire” begins as a very funny, sharp tragicomedy involving super-cynical borderline alcoholic and seizure-prone Owen (Adrian Grenier of “Entourage”) and his extremely tolerant girlfriend Isabel (Angela Trimbur). Insufferably pessimistic, Owen is a self-sabotaging, carrying the guilt of a fire that killed his parents when he was a kid.
Isabel is perpetually on the edge of a breakup but continuously drawn in by pity whenever he has an episode, or gives her puppy dog eyes. After he rants about how having kids is the worst thing in the world—at best case, they grow up to be cretins— she tearfully announces she’s pregnant. (He at least offers to split the cost of the abortion).
Owen begs forgiveness and pledges to be a good dad and change and all that, and she agrees— but only if they visit his estranged sister Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord) who lives like a hermit with their Grandmother because of burns she sustained in the aforementioned fire. “You don’t know what you’re asking”, he says, because Isabel isn’t privy to the fire story until they’re en route to Grandma’s.
The incident was a result of Owen’s improper installation of the heating system (every young teenager should know how to do that, right?). And, oh yeah, it turns out Owen had abandoned poor Pearl in the aftermath. But it doesn’t seem to rattle Isabel too terribly…. onward to the family reunion!
Isabel’s resolve is tested by self-pronounced vessel of God grandma Violet (creepy, petrifying Fionnula Flanagan), who makes the mom in “Carrie” look like an atheist. Not two minutes before walking in the door, she’s labeled Isabel a whore with poor taste in men, and the film becomes a fusion of “Duplex” and “Psycho”.
This is going interesting places, I thought, knowing Bates’ propensity for twisting the knife, as Owen periodically tries to communicate with his sister while being berated by Violet. The lack of love isn’t a surprise…. Flanagan plays a ferocious villain, McCord a mysterious recluse. Unfortunately, a nonsensical series of events and an unnecessary side-reveal make it all seem a little silly. First two acts get 4 stars for a great script and thoroughly undecipherable characters doing unpredictable things, third act gets 1 star for the exact opposite, and clunky execution.
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