Trash Fire is a very disturbing film. Owen (Adrian Grenier) and Isabel (Angela Trimbur) are in an on-again-off-again relationship that revolves around sparring that is less like flirting and more like dialogue from a Strindberg play. They are, fittingly, snide and hostile towards each other; a hellish, erotic dance that is perfectly accentuated by a mixture of close-ups and long shots interspersed with one another. During the early dinner scene, we are one second in their face, the next at the other end of the restaurant. Even their sex is a depressing powerplay—stripped of any non-diegetic sounds, the viewer hovers in the corner of their bedroom like a guilty voyeur. There will be no intimacy here. Isabel rolls her eyes and looks bored while Owen tries to convince her that if she takes off her shirt the sex will be over faster. When Isabel finds out she is pregnant and that she plans to abort, Owen’s attempt at a gallant reply is, “Obviously. How much is it? 400? We can split it.” And when Isabel is unhappy with his response, he makes it up to her by having a funeral spray delivered to her office and then reading out an obituary he wrote for her; his way of apologising and saying that he loves her.
Trash Fire is first and foremost a horror film, written and directed by Richard Bates Jr.; his third following Excision (2012) and Suburban Gothic (2014). Bates’ experience in the genre is immediately obvious: watching Owen and Isabel’s toxic relationship unfold is an uncomfortable and abrasive experience, but as the film develops and we meet Owen’s family, it veers into the terrifying. It works because there is something off about their relationship from the start—Owen and Isabel are too flat, too hateful to render the film an interesting psychological portrait. Bates is aware of this and uses it to his advantage. Instead of letting their drama distract from the horror that is to come, he deftly uses their relationship as a backdrop onto which the horror may be first projected, then magnified.
Bates drops very few hints during the first half that it is, in fact, a horror film. Firstly, there is the soundtrack: stripped back and largely devoid of non-diegetic sound, save for the muted, sinister soundtrack by Michl Britsch. Secondly, Owen has recurrent flashbacks of the fire that killed his parents and disfigured his sister, during which we are confronted with blurred, hypersaturated images of his sister burnt and screaming. Later, we learn that it is Owen’s misplaced guilt about being responsible for this fire that has rendered him the bitter husk of a human he is today, and that the fire was in fact started by his deranged grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) who believes that God wants her to kill her family. Bates unfurls these parts of the plot expertly, in such a way that the audience is kept guessing until the end of the film. Bates expertly generates suspense in the build-up to meeting Owen’s sister, Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord), as we watch her prowling through the house at night, picking up a gun, and masturbating while watching Isabel through a keyhole. Throughout the film, details slot in like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and by the time we realise what is happening we are at the film’s inevitable capitulation.
The most interesting and successful aspect of Trash Fire is that it is a horror film with a realistic aesthetic. There is a subtle theme of purging and exorcism that runs through the film, but it takes the naturalistic form of disease—Owen has fits where he froths at the mouth and soils himself, and is also bulimic. The villains, too, are naturalised: the grandmother is a religious fanatic having delusions, and Pearl’s literal mask is part of her face, since she is a burns victim. The spite between Owen and Isabel that dominates the first half of the film thus takes on a whole new meaning in retrospect. Bates’ subtlety is such that, at first glance, the film’s first half appears to be nothing more than a harrowing observation of a two-dimensional couple rowing, and yet in light of the film’s second half, its beginning appears rich and pregnant with foreshadowing. The opening scenes of domestic tension allow the film to escalate so perfectly in the way that it does, leading us to the truly frightening conclusion that horror does not have to be obscure, but can take place in the quotidian fights that couples have, and in the real.