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Sitges 2016: “TRASH FIRE” (Film Review)

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Writer/director Richard Bates Jr. (EXCISION, SUBURBAN GOTHIC) has a peculiar style. A particular cadence of dialogue, a stylization of human interaction that doesn’t ever feel quite natural. I enjoyed SUBURBAN GOTHIC, but on initial viewing, it didn’t quite click with me. It seemed to take place in a universe where people communicate primarily via dry, acerbic witticisms. Where the only time someone isn’t coolly sarcastic is if they’re not intelligent enough to realize they’re supposed to be. TRASH FIRE certainly takes place in this same universe, running even further with this style in the first act. But while SUBURBAN GOTHIC took a while to grow on me, I was enamored with TRASH FIRE from the first scene.

TRASH FIRE begins as the story of Owen and Isabel, a man and woman in a toxic relationship. To any outside observer, they’d seem to hate each other. Owen seems to have an unbearable combination of narcissism and self-loathing. He’s depressed, he hates himself, but he still thinks he’s the smartest person in the room. Isabel wants Owen to grow up, to take anything seriously. She asks him to be polite to her friends and family, and he proves consistently incapable. They bring out the worst in each other, but seem completely codependent.

This first act, establishing their relationship, plays out as a bizarre caricature of a relationship drama. There is very little indication of where the horror will eventually come from. Just two people in a bitter, downward spiral. But under that particularly stylized Richard Bates Jr. brand, the view of an achingly terrible relationship becomes dense with comedy. Every exchange is a series of biting one-liners that will likely be quoted out of context by much of the audience for some time to come.

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Owen and Isabel’s relationship unfolds like Fred Armisen adapted The Mountain Goats album TALLAHASSEE as a stage play. It veers wildly between gut-wrenchingly relatable and hilariously absurd, often from one line of dialogue to the next. It’s addictive. To the point that, when Isabel finally convinces Owen to make amends with his estranged family (an attempt to better himself for her), I was almost disappointed. There is a tangible shifting of gears, when they arrive at the creepy grandmother’s house and the horror starts to creep in. Ostensibly, horror is what I came for, but I have to admit, I would have gladly watched 90 minutes of Isabel and Owen hating and loving each other.

When the story does move into the territory of terror, it still plays things close to the vest. There is a claustrophobic feeling that permeates the vehemently religious grandmother’s home. Owen’s sister, who was horribly scarred in a fire, tends to lurk in the shadows. Owen has flashbacks to a disaster he feels responsible for, which often lead to seizures and lost time. You’re not really sure exactly where the horror is going to come from. You’re not sure who to be afraid of, or what presents the most danger. Things mostly feel vaguely uneasy, until they finally explode.

At the end, you’re left with a comedy that feels at times like a relationship drama. A relationship drama that becomes a horror film, and an ultimately fantastic blending of genres that add up to an addictive film that is, at turns, both hilarious and emotionally devastating.

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About the author
Elijah Taylor
Elijah Taylor used to own a chain of video game stores in Denver, Colorado. Now he works with Laser Party, a poster printing collective, and travels the world, eating, fighting, and attending film festivals.
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