Trash Fire (aka The Wrath) (2016)

Trash Fire (aka The Wrath) first published by 

“Do you remember when we first met?” Isabel (Angela Trimbur) asks her boyfriend Owen (Adam Grenier) towards the end of Trash Fire (aka The Wrath). “You were the biggest piece-of-shit douchebag I had ever met, I could not stand you.”

When we first meet Owen, as he, in the film’s opening sequence, reveals terrible, self-involved truths about his guilt-laden relationship to his late mother and father, and then berates his psychiatrist (Sally Kirkland) in the most vehement terms for falling asleep on the job, our immediate impression of him is similar to Isabel’s. Owen is awful – demanding, intolerant, selfish, rude, captious, callous, priapic, and taking Isabel utterly for granted. If we wonder why she has stuck with him for three years, she is wondering the same thing. Yet there is also, beneath the arrogant bluster, a vulnerability to Owen. His alcohol abuse, his bulimia, his extreme antipathy to religion, his traumatic flashbacks to flames and screams, his panic attacks and even seizures, are all suggestive of a troubled history – and this suspicion is confirmed by his secrecy and sensitivity whenever the topic of his family comes up.

So when Owen is faced with the possibility of starting a new family of his own with the doubtful Isabel, she insists that he must first reconcile himself to his surviving grandmother Violet (Fionnula Flanagan) and burn-scarred sister Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord) from whom he has been estranged for years – and so begins an odyssey into the painful past, part Bible Belt gothic, part fairytale (complete with witch and monster), part twisted tragedy. It is a homecoming which will change and improve Owen, allowing him to confront the parts of himself and his personal history that he has long been repressing – but it might be too late.

In fact, Trash Fire is a film of literal confrontations, as writer/director Richard Bates Jr constantly favours framing his characters in head-on medium shots. When these people talk to, argue with, and are verbally cruel at, each other, they face the camera, directing their words right at us – and so we as viewers are at the receiving end of both sides in an ongoing and vicious dialectic between Christianity and secularism, between sexual repression and insatiable concupiscence, between a damaged past and a hopeful future, between a surrender to madness and a groping towards sanity.

As in Bates’ previous features Excision (2012) and Suburban Gothic (2014), the hyperreal focus here is on domestic and psychological dysfunction, with an only eventually likeable protagonist unable to put conflict with his family’s previous generation behind him. Trash Fire is, at least at first, a black comedy of manners and a spiky character study, although once Owen has arrived at his grandmother’s house, elements of Eyes Without A Face, Flowers in the Attic, Psycho (both versions, regendered), the myth of Persephone and even Shyamalan’s The Visit start finding their way into its fabric, building up to a shocking conclusion that in many ways darkly mirrors the ending of Excision. The film’s tonal dissonances unsettle the viewer, ensuring that we never quite know what is coming next, or how to respond to the harrowing climax – but it is clear that the next generation is fated to be as messed up as the last, as the cords of family prove impossible fully to cut.

Summary: Dark comedy of manners turns to horror in Richard Bates Jr’s tale of repressed family values

© Anton Bitel