Trash Fire (2016) Directed by Richard Bates, Jr. Starring Adrian Grenier, Angela Trimbur, Fionnula Flanagan and Annalynne McCord. Owen, a haunted man with a mean streak, is forced to confront his horrifying past by reconnecting with his stern grandmother and scarred sister years after a tragic house fire claimed the lives of his parents.
When we first meet Owen Roberts, he’s talking at length to his psychiatrist.
“For as long as I remember, I had been waiting for my parents to die, so I could commit suicide without an overwhelming sense of guilt.”
As he finishes, Owen angrily realizes that his shrink is fast asleep. She eventually wakes.
“Was I asleep?”
“How did that make you feel?”
His fractured, unhealthy relationship with his girlfriend Isabel is beginning to wear her down and she’s not shy about letting him know. When he isn’t bluntly cutting Isabel’s friends down to size with his lack of a filter, Owen is haunted by gruesome flashbacks to a fire that claimed the lives of his parents. He’s also prone to seizures, which cause him to lose hours of memory. He hates Isabel’s friends and family and refuses to even discuss his. He drinks too much, begs for sex and requires his girlfriend to fill a Mother role in his life. She takes care of him after his seizures or benders, but when he’s sober, they bicker constantly over sex, his immaturity and shadowy childhood that she is kept from learning about.
The dysfunctional vibe even extends to the bedroom.
As Owen thrusts into Isabel, she asks:
“Is something wrong? It usually doesn’t take you this long.”
“It’s only been 30 seconds.”
They see the same psychiatrist who sleeps through Owen’s sessions for couples counseling, which quickly devolves into squabbling.
Isabel begins to seriously question Owen’s lack of humanity as they go through an eternal break up and apologize routine. After a fight, he shows up at her office with a wreath-like funeral spread of flowers and reads her a morbid but somewhat romantic obituary detailing her future life in reverse.
“I couldn’t sleep last night, so I wrote your obituary.”
In addition to top-notch performances by Adrian Grenier as Owen and “The Final Girls” Angela Trimbur as Isabel, “Trash Fire” benefits from a couple supporting roles by familiar faces.
Ray Santiago of “Ash Vs Evil Dead” plays Isabel’s pal Sheldon, another well-meaning fellow who becomes the target of Owen’s derision. And “Criminal Minds” star Matthew Gray Gubler appears as Isabel’s uptight, religious brother Caleb, who is not in the Owen Roberts fan club.
After saying grace over a meal, Caleb is surprised when Owen also asks to give thanks to the Almighty:
“Do you mind if I say a few words?”
“Dark Lord of the Abyss, we wish to become one with you…”
“That’s not funny.”
After ranting about how having children is a terrible idea, Owen is stunned to discover that Isabel is pregnant. She wants to have children, but not with him. He can barely take care of himself, let alone a child. As part of his bid to prove himself a better man, Owen reluctantly agrees to reconnect and reconcile with his grandmother Violet and younger sister Pearl. He hasn’t spoken to either of them in years.
On the trip to see them, Owen describes his childhood.
His parents hated each other. Owen’s fanatically religious father communicated mainly via scripture quotes, while his mother was a nymphomaniac who was screwing the entire town and then some. They decided to have a second child to strengthen their deteriorating marriage, and Owen got a baby sister, Pearl.
One night while the teenage Owen was out drinking, a propane tank he had hooked up to heat the house malfunctioned and burned the place down. His parents died and Pearl escaped with third degree burns over 80 % of her body. Owen has lived in crushing, cancerous guilt ever since.
After being forced to live with their domineering grandmother, Violet, Owen and his sister planned to escape. Knowing that her medical problems made her a liability, he ultimately abandoned her, leaving the small girl to wait by the roadside with her suitcase to be picked up by her brother.
Eventually, she gave up.
After arriving at Granny’s old house in the country, Isabel and Owen get an icy welcome from God-fearing matriarch Violet. She forces them to sleep in separate rooms and judges them at every turn.
After everyone goes to sleep, the adult version of Pearl emerges from hiding and slips through the house like a living ghost, a child-like phantom who stands over her new guests as they slumber. She is played by Annalynne McCord of the horror film “Excision” in one of her most striking and powerful performances.
Granny Violet can’t stand the sight of Pearl, even though they live in the same house. And something curious happens between Isabel and Owen…they have a reversal of priorities. He becomes committed to reconciliation and pursuing a deeper connection with his family members, and Isabel wants to get the hell outta there as fast as possible. She’s now seen that Owen’s caustic sarcasm and bluntness pales in comparison to his stern Grandmother’s withering assessments.
After being told that Isabel is pregnant, Granny offers this kind supportive gem:
“Oh, grow up, Owen. Your mother was a whore, your father was a moron and your sister is an abomination. And now I have to go to my grave knowing that this bloodline will continue?”
There’s a twist that anyone can guess well before the reveal, but actually listening to it spelled out, it still retains the mesmerizing power to enrage. We learn the deeper reason why Violet hates Pearl and the lengths to which her obsession with godliness goes.
I’ve read comments debating whether “Trash Fire” is a horror film or not. It is. Unique and fresh though the surface may be, the skeleton of the film is pure psychological horror. I would even go a step further and call it a new subgenre: Emotional Horror. Innocent lives are tragically altered by a very human monster, and that violent eruption of a brutal ending is…well, if you think this tale is headed to happy fields where joy forever dwells, you haven’t been paying attention.
In a film packed with excellent performances, “American Horror Story” star Fionnula Flanagan takes the cake as the batty, repressed and sadistic Violet. There’s a beautifully absurd scene late in “Trash Fire” that follows Violet as she wakes Pearl up in the dead of night that is so perfectly emblematic of their bizarre relationship.
As Owen and Isabel learn, sometimes moving on is for the best when your family is this screwed up and predatory.