Labeled a "comedy/dark comedy" on Netflix, TRASH FIRE starts off with us meeting Owen (played by Adrian Grenier) during one of his therapy sessions with his psychiatrist. The session does not go well. After that, we meet his girlfriend, Isabel (Angela Trimbur), as the loving (er--?) couple have dinner out to celebrate their third anniversary together. That also does not go well. This dynamic of things not going well continues in the other scenes that rapidly follow when: he’s having sex with Isabel; they’re having breakfast with her brother (Matthew Gray Gubler from CRIMINAL MINDS) who’s in town; or they’re having dinner with her friends (Molly Cook and ASH VS. THE EVIL DEAD’s Ray Santiago). In pretty much all of these scenes, Owen is tough to take and I found him difficult to like. Okay, in the first scene when he's in therapy, I'll cut Owen's character some slack: after revealing some very personal feelings - about how he wished his parents were dead only so he could commit suicide guilt-free and then, when fate gave him dead parents, he didn’t have the guts to follow through on killing himself - Owen discovers his psychiatrist (Sally Kirkland) has fallen asleep listening to him. Maybe I'd tell off my psychiatrist, too, if that happened to me. But after that, he just seems like a jerk. True, Isabel has her abrasive side, too, but I chalked that up to a sort of survival-mode of being Owen’s girlfriend and having to live with him. Although, I soon was getting annoyed with her for staying with him. And then, when the couple’s having yet another argument, Isabel suddenly confesses that she’s pregnant, and Owen becomes even more of a douchebag as he says some really vile things to her in an immediate reaction to the news. Grrrr!
But, that modification was gradual and also the result of a bit of meditation on the film several days after watching it.
But, as I also said, I started warming up to Owen mostly because he was making an effort. Also, the addition of Violet and Pearl’s characters make the mix more interesting. Owen’s maternal grandmother, Violet (Fionnula Flanagan), happily takes the baton for being the beast our protagonists and we the audience have to deal with. Even when Violet greets them with a shotgun, that's the least of her offenses. Somehow Owen manages to stay civil in irritating exchanges with his granny, but Violet manages to actually wear down Isabel's tolerance during the stay.
And disfigured, reclusive Pearl is an intriguing mystery. Usually hiding in her room, we’re aware of her shadowy form peeking out from her window, or we see her stealing about at night when everyone’s asleep, or secretly spying on Isabel at her most intimate moments.
I’d say another genre is Southern Gothic. Okay, I’m not that well-versed in things Southern Gothic, and I’m not really sure how far south this film’s setting is located, but from what little research I’ve done on the topic, the genre includes sex, religion and violence, while told with an eye for the grotesque and darkly comic, and I think TRASH FIRE fits (in fact, during our movie chat Zombie Dawn brought up the book, Flowers in the Attic by V. C. Andrews, a classic Southern Gothic guilty pleasure from 1979, popular enough to warrant eight books in the series).
Anyway, though I thought the film improved, by the end of the film I wish writer/director Richard Bates, Jr. had done more with Pearl and also Violet; in fact, with all four of the characters. The film seems somewhat underwritten in parts, in terms of story and character development.
Still, having said that, this film stayed with me for several days. True, part of that was because I was trying to finish this damn review and I still wasn’t sure how I ultimately felt about the film, so I kept thinking about it. But the film itself had enough material in it to genuinely generate further internal discussion, which is a credit to writer/director Richard Bates, Jr. as well as the cast. But at the same time, I think Bates also could have explained a few things better, too. Like, the skeleton under the porch, for instance. NOTE: Okay, I think Bates' acknowledges the bones' existence with a mysterious reference Pearl makes about what it's like to live with her grandmother, but I still found that unsatisfying.
Also, there’s one scene in particular which really bothered me narratively. Violet visits the pastor of her church (played by Ezra Buzzington) and she essentially makes this confession to him in his office. What triggers this is her learning that Isabel is pregnant with Owen’s child. Although this seems legitimate motivation in the context of the story, the extent of what Violet reveals also seems abrupt, as if motivated by the writer’s need to reveal more back story. In addition, there’s a snake in the office, a rattlesnake to be specific. As far as I can tell, why the snake is there is unexplained. It’s in an aquarium, like a pet. But, besides it’s presence, it also plays an important plot point, as Violet steals it for her own purposes at the end of the scene.
Okay, I don't usually like to reveal too much about a film, but every now and then, I feel a need to do just that so SPOILER ALERT as I talk more about this (sorry!):
The whole snake thing drove me crazy at first, on a variety of levels, and I brought this up in the movie conversation. First, why a pet snake, especially in the office of a pastor ? And why a rattlesnake, versus, let's say, a boa constrictor, which I would think is like the default snake to have as a pet? It seemed that Bates simply wanted a venomous snake for plot purposes. I found these questions terribly distracting. Considering the significance of the snake in the Bible (specifically, the whole Garden of Eden story and the significance of the snake and the part it plays in that story), I found this pet snake’s arbitrary inclusion irritating. However, after a couple days of reflection, it suddenly occurred to me while driving home in commuter traffic that it wasn’t arbitrary at all. In fact, it made a lot of sense. There’s a type of Christian belief called snake (or serpent) handling that’s found in Appalachia and other areas of the rural Southeast where they use rattlesnakes in (a small part of) their religious service. According to this Wikipedia page on the practice, one of the more famous practitioners of this belief, pastor George Went Halsey, preached that those believers who were truly filled with the Holy Spirit could handle venomous serpents, as well as drink poison, without harm. I had first heard about this years ago but I had forgotten it. The images I’ve seen are sermons conducted in a tent, like a revival, although they’re done in regular churches as well, and there’s a pastor holding a large rattlesnake bare-handed before the assembled congregation. When I remembered this, the film's scene made a lot more sense to me. Not only why the pastor had a rattlesnake in his office, but Violet’s nonchalant, bare-handed abduction of the snake. However, I take issue with no set-up for this in the film itself. Not knowing this type of religious practice makes the whole scene awfully arbitrary to me, which is really unfortunate, because I think it really adds to the movie contextually otherwise. So, I think Bates dropped the ball here, or at the very least, misjudged the necessity of needing to include some kind of explanation. And I don’t think a lot of exposition regarding this would have been necessary. For instance, at more than one time we see religious programming on TV. If there was a scene of a sermon with snake handling on the TV, that would have been enough. Second, how Violet actually uses the snake is a little far-fetched, I think. She puts it in the toilet that Isabel uses in an effort to kill "the whore." On paper it might make some sense, but on screen, well, they use a pretty sizable rattlesnake. I found it very hard to believe that someone going to the toilet would not see it before they sat down, no matter HOW quickly they lifted the seat and turned around and sat, even if distracted. But, letting that slide, I was distracted by the snake calmly sitting in the water waiting. I wouldn’t think it would stay there, that it would have left the toilet for a dry spot before Isabel even came in the room. But, I’ve also accepted some screwier plot developments in other films, so this could be me being crotchety. Still, the lack of an explanation for the rattlesnake in the first place is, I think, a big mistake.
Having said all that, one of the things I realized during our film chat that I really liked about the film, was that both Owen and Isabel have a strong religious element in their families. Owen directly mentions how it turned him against the church, but Isabel’s feelings are left for us to debate via her brother’s strong fundamentalist views. To further reinforce this idea, Violet is also a hardline fundamentalist and it colors how she talks to Isabel especially, unapologetically calling her a “whore” to her face. But, it occurred to me that perhaps there’s an unconscious parallel here to the behavioral dynamics of Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOAs). In the same way that ACOAs either grow up to be alcoholics or are drawn to other alcoholics perhaps without even realizing it (this is speaking very broadly), due to the strong behavioral influence of their upbringing, I see similar behavioral dysfunction between Owen and Isabel, and perhaps Isabel being attracted to Owen because she instinctually recognizes his behavioral dynamic from such a family upbringing. In this case, they would be, well, Adult Children of Religious Fanatics. This idea I found fascinating and I think deepens any meditation on the film. True, I may be totally reading into this on my part, but I don't think that makes the observation less valid in these days of our multiple dysfunctional society and 12-step programs. Again, I wasn’t thinking about this dynamic during my first watching of the film, but it occurred to me a couple days later when we discussed the film.
Finally, I found elements of tragedy in the plot, where characters sow the seeds of their own destruction and I thought that added another layer of understanding and discussion to the film as well. Another SPOILER ALERT: Specifically, Owen and Isabel’s behavior. Considering that Isabel was the one that pushed for Owen’s reconciliation visit with Violet and Pearl, when Violet’s verbal abuse becomes too much for Isabel, Isabel’s had enough and wants to leave. Even when Pearl later steals into Isabel's room late at night to try and convince her to stay, Pearl even saying she might come to some sort of closure with Owen if he and Isabel would stay a little longer, Isabel won’t even consider it and tells Pearl no. In this way I think Isabel is selfish. Also, when Owen finally talks with Pearl in her room, he asks her to forgive him for abandoning her, which is understandable. And Pearl says she can't. Which is also understandable. I think Owen's impatience with Pearl is tragic, although part of that is not only is his inexperience at working through these emotional negotiations with family (sometimes a long process), but also he's pressured by a deadline since Isabel wants to leave the house as soon as possible. And though Owen tells Pearl he needs her forgiveness, he doesn't actually articulate he's sorry to Pearl for what he did to her.
So the ending took me rather by surprise, but upon re-watching it and after further reflection (especially watching the emotional shifts in one of the character's faces, seeing first the release of years of suppressed tension and then, having crossed that bridge, the realization of perhaps new beginnings) it wraps up some emotional loose ends nicely. I also liked how Bates uses slow motion to drag out the conclusion, both in letting us wait to see what actually happened but also allowing us to consider what's going on in the sudden conclusion. In fact, watching the ending for the third time made me like the film more.
Alright, I suppose I should wrap things up finally.
And then I outright lost that first version of the review because of a computer virus scare and when I impulsively shut off my computer, apparently I didn't save what I was writing so far, so, after much swearing, I had to start the review again.
Still, after it's all said and done, and after much thought and some re-watching, I think my feelings towards TRASH FIRE are closer to Mermaid Heather's positive review, except instead of her diplomatic disclaimers, my criticisms are crankier. So, I think TRASH FIRE's definitely worth a watch, but depending on what aspects of the film you wind up focusing on, there's no guarantee what you'll take away from it. But, now I'm definitely interested in checking out Bates' other film, EXCISION (2012) which also stars AnnaLynne McCord. And I may even watch TRASH FIRE one more time...
Man, in a way, trying to write a review for this film was a little like therapy for me, at least in terms of working through things.
Whatever: Yay, I'm done!
Also, now that I've finally posted my review of TRASH FIRE, you can also check out what Mermaid Heather and Zombie Dawn thought about the film, too; also, here's our discussion about the film. Okay, onto reviewing the second film (for May) I'm behind on, and then, after editing and posting the chat for May's film, well, then, finally, I'll be set to watch and review this month's film!
...baby steps, baby steps...