Film Review: Trespass Against Us

A stylistically competent narrative debut that sadly buries its humanism underneath a whimsical surface and generates more apathy than empathy for the small-time criminals at its center.
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Trespass Against Us, the debut narrative feature of director Adam Smith, can best be described as a whimsical kitchen-sink drama. That’s an oxymoron to a degree, but also an accurate take on Smith’s generally competent but unsteady film. The type of social realism on display in Trespass Against Us—which traces the misadventures of a traveling and despicably foul-mouthed family from the lower ranks of England’s West Country—is dark and gloomy at its core. The Cutlers are poor, mostly uneducated and live in a trailer. They aren’t necessarily “goodhearted people” per se, but with only bad options in the vicious circle of crime they’re stuck in, how else could they be? In Smith’s film, written by Alastair Siddons, all of these nuances are somehow and sadly tidily pushed beneath a glossy surface of empty buoyancy.

This approach partly works for the film’s “light” segments: There are plenty of lazy afternoons, carefree days spent driving at blazing speeds through the meadows, and family-bonding nights shared around a crackling fire (one of them in particular could have benefited from subtitles geared towards American ears). But after a certain point, that forged warmth mostly keeps the Cutlers’ troubles at an inaccessible distance from the audience, eventually creating apathy rather than empathy. The father, Chad, is played by Michael Fassbender, who always seems impossibly crisp and well-dressed for a financially struggling thief raised by a proud father in a tracksuit (Brendan Gleeson, typically great in the role of a grandpa with a bad influence on his grandson). Since Chad and his disapproving wife Kelly (Lyndsey Marshal) don’t have any other ways of making ends meet, theft and small-time crimes prove to be the only resort for their survival and for Chad to put food on the family table. Everything about the generally menacing Chad screams that he wants to break free from his dead-end life. (One can even say his choice of clothing is in quiet protest.) But having a young son, whose school education is a priority to the couple dreaming of a better life, ultimately immobilizes him. And eventually, a big theft job knocks on the door and despite Kelly’s protests, Chad takes part against his better judgment.

Things go as bad as you can imagine they will. After a nail-biting, well-orchestrated chase scene and the gratuitous killing of a dog (sensitive dog lovers, beware—there are two in the film), Chad ultimately hits a wall and so does the film. As the story progresses, it becomes increasingly unclear why we should care about the Cutlers in a film that doesn’t seem to have a great deal of deep thoughts about or strong feelings for them.

For all its general remoteness, Trespass Against Us boasts a delectable score by The Chemical Brothers that alternates between jovial and sinister, and shows solid traces of filmmaking proficiency in its tricky scenes, when we can clearly see Smith stepping in as a director. The rabbit chase scene in the opening moments is no small feat and makes the heart race. (Too bad the rest of the film can’t keep up.) And several skillfully choreographed cat-and-mouse sequences throughout signal a directorial hand that could have a firm future in the action genre. If only the film’s humanism hadn’t been so muted and out of reach.

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