Trash Fire starts out as a third-rate indie comedy, morphs into second-rate, and finally pulls its mask off to reveal an okay Grand Guignol horror. It wants desperately to be a midnight movie, but it forgets that even the weirdest of such, Eraserhead, Pink Flamingos and, say, Julien Donkey Boy, had compelling characters. Not so Trash Fire.
The film begins with the dysfunctional Owen (Adrian Grenier), a handsome misanthrope blessed with an acid tongue and no concept of human empathy, and his long-suffering and extraordinarily patient girlfriend, Isabel (Angela Trimbur). Owen has serious epileptic fits that cause him to hallucinate the same images over and over again, something about a fire and a cackling woman. Isabel seems obligated to take care of him, though Owen in no way deserves it.
Eventually Isabel reveals she is pregnant, prompting an utterly horrific response by Owen, who realizes he has gone too far this time. The next morning she promptly forgives him (the biggest stretch of reality in this entire film) and insists that in order to stay with her and have a child, he must make amends to his family.
Due to a tragedy that Owen feels responsible for, that family consists of his grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) and his disfigured sister, Pearl (AnnaLynn McCord). The grandmother turns out to be a terrible person who instantly sizes Isabel up as a slut and never upgrades her original perception. Pearl stays in her room and doesn’t talk to anyone, but takes to spying come nightfall. Strangely, the couple decides to stay longer than any reasonable human being would think necessary so that Owen can make amends with his sister. Utterly unsurprisingly, the grandmother turns out to be a nefarious person, and it all comes down to a climax most people see coming from a country mile. Still, this beats the first third of the film.
Writer/director Richard Bates Jr. does have a sense of pacing and knows how to build suspense. One particularly effective sequence involves a judiciously placed rattlesnake. Except, again, we don’t care about nor believe these people. Only McCord brings her character to any sort of life, which is interesting because she spends most of the proceeding skulking about.
Clearly, Bates is trying to get to a particular truth about the difficulties of family and forgiveness, but the snarkiness and smugness of his delivery (the acidic dialogue echoes secondhand Neil LaBute) simply gets in the way.