It's too easy, too obvious to refer to Trash Fire as a dumpster fire. More to the point, calling Bates' film a dumpster fire undermines the movie's successes and sensationalizes its failures.
Not able (or willing?) to present the film himself at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival, Bates filmed a brief intro which played before the movie. In it, he explains how and why he made Trash Fire and then apologized for its ending. At the time, we the audience had no idea what he was talking about and laughed it off, but now that I've sat through the film, I'm not sure I was able (or willing) to accept his apology. At the risk of spoiling the film for any and all future viewers, Trash Fire ends badly—for the characters and the audience.
At the request of is girlfriend, Isabel, Owen introduces her to his estranged grandmother, Violet, and his sister, Pearl. The visit is meant to mend fences, to give Owen a chance to confront his past and gain closure on a dark chapter in his life, but neither Violet nor Pearl are interested helping him move forward. Each woman, in her own way, conspires to alienate Owen and Isabel.
The way Bates tells it, he wanted to make his movie his way and Trash Fire is very much his own movie. As seems to be the case with many indie filmmakers, Bates crashed hard after riding high on the success of his first film, Excision. Depression set in, and he was caught between making movies for himself and making movies for others. For whatever reason he was granted the opportunity to make whatever he wanted, and Trash Fire feels like a very personal film. Maybe a bit too personal.
“It's about depression,” Bates says. It certainly feels depressive. But the characters and their relationships are driven more by self-loathing than actual depression. And the film's clear religious influences and criticisms motivate the plot. Further complicating matters is the fact that there's no resolution—just when it seems like Owen and Isabel have finally turned a corner the movie comes to a sudden end.
Perhaps the worst thing about Trash Fire is that it conspires against itself. At the start of the movie, there's nothing but inertia keeping Owen and Isabel in place. They go through the motions of caring about each other and their relationship, but it's clear to everyone that Isabel would be better off without Owen. That point is driven home by the disastrous fallout of their trip to grandma's house. Although Owen and Isabel do grow closer during their sojourn, the plot prevents Owen from surmounting certain personal obstacles, precluding any real closure for him.
Trash Fire is billed as a dark comedy, but its moments of levity do little to lighten the mood. The film clings desperately to a bleak world view. Bates is right to apologize to the audience; after the quirky Suburban Gothic, the unrelentingly hostile and oppressive atmosphere of Trash Fire feels like a slap in the face. Owen's personal journey is well paced and Bates does a good job rebuilding his relationship with Isabel, but all that subtlety is overshadowed by the almost cartoonishly evil Violet and an unbalanced Pearl.