In “Ed Wood,” the greatest movie ever made about a godawful filmmaker, the joke — and the glory — of watching Johnny Depp’s Edward D. Wood Jr. direct his beyond-bad grade-Z sci-fi and horror films is that he essentially made movies like a child. He made up whatever suited him at the moment; he had no filter, no sense. His only aesthetic was: If it felt good to him…why not? (That’s what made a movie like his 1953 transvestite confessional “Glen or Glenda” so sincere.) Most cinematic ineptitude isn’t touched by Wood’s tacky purity, but the tendency toward a child’s-eye view still applies. When you’re watching a movie that’s truly terrible, it’s often one in which anything goes, which is why anything can go very, very badly.
Take, for instance, “Trespass Against Us,” which is without a doubt the worst film I’ve seen at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. When you hear about it, it seems to have the elements of a watchable movie, beginning with its gifted stars, Michael Fassbender and Brendan Gleeson. They play father-and-son criminals who live, along with other family members, in a kind of makeshift domestic trailer camp. It seems a haphazard arrangement, even for grimy outlaws, and the movie gives you very little sense of how they wound up there. But that’s because of the Ed Wood factor: They live in this arrangement because the director thought it would be cool. What other explanation is needed? The second awkward/childish idea is the Fassbender character’s brother, a nut job who skulks around in bare chest and tight pants, setting things on fire because…the director thought that would be cool. I’m not suggesting a mentally ill movie character shouldn’t exist, only that this one’s craziness is played for stunted shock value and “laughs,” so that we never know what to think about him. He’s a real character, but he’s not really a character.
The director is Adam Smith, letting loose after some work in television (he directed three “Doctor Who” episodes), and he creates an annoying kitchen-sink-of-the-absurd nether zone that’s halfway between sitcom and Samuel Beckett, as staged by Guy Ritchie with a broken motor. The basic mood of “Trespass Against Us” is one of extreme stasis (people sitting around grousing at each other, the filmmaker poking you in the ribs to admire the absurdity of it all), but stasis can work if it holds out the possibility of something to discover. In this case, it doesn’t. Fassbender’s Chad is dimly trying to break the destructive chain that connects him to his father, who’s played by Gleeson at his most tediously ill-tempered…which signifies that he’s cool! The torpor is interrupted by several “car chases” — it’s actually just one car — which Smith shoots as if he were suddenly making his action-film audition reel. Only set in the tall weeds.
Maybe it’s understandable that Fassbender looks even more tortured than usual. His indie-cred side has always led him to make some odd choices — like when he played a version of the papier-mâché-headed English musician Frank Sidebottom in “Frank,” a movie that had no more psychology than a hipster greeting card. In “Trespass Against Us,” Chad has a wife and two kids, but the movie turns him into such a passive agent that it’s impossible to read him. Now he’s a reckless thief. Now he’s a caring family man. Now he will sacrifice himself because he is both. But mostly because Fassbender is a big actor who needs a major martyr climax. It’s hard to say what the title of “Trespass Against Us” actually means, but then it’s hard to know what anything in this movie thinks it’s about. Even Ed Wood would have said, “Needs work.”