Sundance Film Review: ‘Trash Fire’

An aggressively unpleasant black comedy with modest horror flourishes.

'Trash Fire' Review: Adrian Grenier's Sundance
Sundance Film Festival

Misanthropy runs in the family in “Trash Fire,” an aggressively unpleasant black comedy with modest horror flourishes from director Richard Bates Jr. Gunning for cult status, the pic may find a small following among those who prefer their dialogue exclusively delivered in the form of insults, put-downs and offensive outbursts. But awkward execution and thriller elements that fail to ignite will keep this oddity limited to, if not the garbage heap, at least the VOD ghetto.

Topliner Adrian Grenier distances himself immediately from laidback “Entourage” Alpha male Vinnie Chase in the role of miserable antihero Owen. As he tells his bored shrink (Sally Kirkland) in the abrasive opening scene, he’s wanted to kill himself for years but could never work up the courage, even after both his parents died in a freak fire that left his younger sister scarred for life.

From that character-illuminating introduction, the pic segues to an even more confrontational dinner date between Owen and his long-suffering g.f., Isabel (Angela Trimbur), who has finally had enough of his crap and informs them their relationship is over. But after Owen experiences one of his semi-regular seizures later that night and collapses outside their apartment, Isabel nurses him back to health.

Though they can scarcely find a loving word to say to one another (sample pillow talk: “Your balls smell real bad,” “I’m going to jerk off in the bathroom”), Isabel discovers she’s pregnant. After Owen bluntly tells her to have an abortion, they somehow reconcile and Isabel lays down a few ground rules before they become a family. Top of the list: She wants to meet his sister and grandmother, who he has been out of touch with for years despite the fact they’re the only family he has left.

Ignoring Owen’s warnings that they’re even worse people than he is, Isabel gets her way and the couple make a long commute to a remote small town where Owen’s puritanical grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) keeps his physically and emotionally scarred sister, Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord), locked away in her bedroom. Or maybe the younger woman has retreated there by choice, as Isabel quickly discovers Owen’s grandmother is the embodiment of holier-than-thou religious hypocrisy. (“Your mother was a whore, your father was a moron and your sister’s an abomination,” she tells Owen during a typical conversation.)

Events go from bad to worse and it soon becomes clear that Grandmother has more than just an acid tongue, but while Isabel pleads to leave, Owen insists on staying until he can make peace with Pearl. Unfortunately for him, Pearl — who stalks the house like Norman Bates meets the girl from “The Ring” — only has eyes for Isabel.

The point of all this is not exactly clear, though Bates (Richard, not Norman) has said the story has origins in his own personal bout with depression. Whatever personal demons he’s trying to exorcise on screen — including a thinly veiled contempt for religion — feel grafted onto a mishmash of horror tropes that never fully embrace their genre origins until an over-the-top finale bloodbath.

The performers are mostly out to sea without a paddle trying to make sense of hateful characters, but Trimbur at least shows some comic spark and strikes a few sympathetic notes. Tech credits are appropriately grimy.

Sundance Film Review: ‘Trash Fire’

Reviewed at Rodeo screening room, Beverly Hills, Jan. 11, 2016. (In Sundance Film Festival — Midnight.) Running time: <strong>93 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: A Circle of Confusion and Snowfort Pictures production. (International sales: XYZ Films.) Produced by Lawrence Mattis, Matt Smith, David Lawson Jr. Executive producer, Makan Delrahim.
  • Crew: Directed, written by Richard Bates Jr. Camera (color, HD), Shane Daly; editor-associate producer, Yvonne Valdez; music, Michl Britsch; music supervisor, Andrea von Foerster; production designer, Tracy Dishman; art director, Leigh Poindexter; set decorator, Margaret Box; costume designer, Anthony Tran; sound, George Wymenga; supervising sound editor, Xander Lott; re-recording mixer, Kyle Arzt; special makeup effects, Jason Collins, Chris Dooly; special effects, Anthony Eichner, Doc Death; assistant director, Matt Dority; casting, Carinne Uslar.
  • With: Adrian Grenier, Angela Trimbur, Fionnula Flanagan, AnnaLynne McCord, Sally Kirkland, Matthew Gray Gubler, Ezra Buzzington.