[This is a re-post of my review from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. Trespass Against Us opens this weekend in limited release.]
One would expect fireworks when you get two incredible actors like Michael Fassbender and Brendan Gleeson to lead your movie. Sadly, Trespass Against Us director Adam Smith wastes his talented leads on a standard family crime drama we’ve seen plenty of times before. Alastair Siddons’ screenplay doesn’t find a unique angle on the tale of a son trying to escape from his father’s criminal ways, and the only energy Smith brings to the picture is when he’s directing car chases. Fassbender and Gleeson do what they can with the material, but there’s not much room for them to go in unexpected directions.
Chad Cutler (Fassbender) lives in a small trailer community with his wife Kelly (Lyndsey Marshal), his son and daughter, and with an expanded family led by patriarch Colby Cutler (Gleeson). Chad is as rambunctious as his relatives, but he wants a better life for his son Tyson, and seeks to send his kids to a good school and live in a nice community. But he can’t resist his father’s influence, and he gets roped into a dangerous home burglary. From there, Chad’s hopes begin to unravel while Colby seems largely indifferent to his son’s predicament.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the premise of a man trying to break away from his father’s shadow and find a new path for his own son, but Smith never does anything surprising with the material. It proceeds exactly as you expect it to, and everyone seems bored as a result. Scenes that offer potential like Colby telling Tyson that school is worthless don’t build into anything worthwhile. There should be more conflict between Chad and Colby, and yet Chad reacts to his father more with irritation than anger. Perhaps Smith found the story more meaningful if he showed a strained family rather than one that’s breaking apart, but it makes the relationships feel beleaguered rather than explosive.
The only times when Smith brings any immediacy to the proceedings is when Chad is making his criminal getaways. While the scenes function as a way to show the enjoyment Chad gets from being a criminal, and that perhaps a life of crime is not being forced upon him by his father but by his own desires, the scenes play like Smith is auditioning to direct a Fast & Furious film. The rest of the film is largely muted and realistic, and the intensity of the getaways is jarring but rarely compelling.
That leaves Fassbender and Gleeson twisting in the wind. Neither performer is bad, but the movie doesn’t really give them space to explore interesting emotional territory. The characters don’t really change that much over the course of the film—Chad is a guy who’s conflicted about how to raise his family, and Colby never second-guesses his decisions. The Cutlers are never as compelling as the film thinks they are, and while a more nuanced story could have mined something interesting from the family dynamic, it goes nowhere despite the talented actors involved.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to tell a generational family crime story, but we’re so familiar with its tropes and archetypes that to tell it now requires something new and exciting. Sadly, Trespass Against Us is neither, and its talented cast ends up paying the price.