TRESPASS AGAINST US (2016) review
written by: Alastair Siddons
produced by: Andrea Calderwood, Gail Egan and Alastair Siddons
directed by: Adam Smith
rated: R (for pervasive language, some disturbing behavior and brief graphic nudity)
runtime: 99 min.
U.S. release date: October 21, 2016 (Chicago International Film Festival) and January 20, 2017 (limited)
There have always been movies about crime families. There’s no getting away from them and when you try, they just keep pulling you back in. There’s an irresistible draw in following a near-claustrophobic close family, often a charming one at that, who have a tendency for the reprehensible and a penchant for illegal activities. There’s usually a complicated family dynamic, especially if a crime specialty is passed down generation after generation and at least one member who’s itching to break free from the family business. This is essentially what can be found in “Trespass Against Us”, the first feature from director Adam Smith, who has made music videos for The Chemical Brothers for some time and directed episodes of “Doctor Who” and “Skins”, and a film which benefits greatly from its two lead actors, both of whom make us forget about the tropes of the genre found here.
The Cutlers are a nomadic Irish family who live in their own trailer park community near the upper class British mansions they steal from. Patriarch and crime ringleader, Colby (Brendan Gleeson), lines up various smash-and-grab “jobs” for his sons to carry out, while he hangs out at near the seemingly continuous tire fire that keeps their clan warm. Of the drone sons that obey Colby’s bidding, Chad (Michael Fassbender) is the only one who seems to be free from the hive mind. He’s the cocky and rambunctious driver when they’re out on burglary runs, which clearly makes him feel free and alive. But he’s getting restless and is itching to make a better life for him and his wife, Kelly (a sweet and tough, Lyndsey Marshal “The Hereafter“) and their two young children, Tyler (Georgie Smith) who’s in need of a decent male influence and his sweet sister, Mini (Kacie Anderson), yet breaking free from “the family” is easier said than done, when his father looms like a shadow over his every move.
The more time spent with his selfish and reckless siblings, the more Chad realizes the potential danger his immediate family faces. Colby can’t understand his son’s behavior, even though one of his other son’s, the mentally-unstable Gordie (Sean Harris, who also starred with Fassbender in “Prometheus“) came close to accidentally killing young Tyler. Chad and Kelly yearn for a different life and future for their children, which is why they have enrolled them in a local private school (although they have no qualms with their kids dropping F-bombs as frequent as the rest of the Cutlers) and why Chad has looked into a new home for the four of them. The big problem though is Chad, who is a man conflicted with his responsibilities as a husband and father and his assumed blind loyalty as a son. Such loyalty gets him into hot water with the local constable, P.C. Lovage (Rory Kinnear, “Skyfall“), who’s been looking for the right moment to nail someone from the Cutler family, while Chad’s sole desire is to become independent from his corruptive father.
“Trespass Against Us” begins with a spirited opening, finding Chad tearing through a meadow behind the wheel of a family car with his son on his lap, surrounded by the Cutler brothers. It’s a taste of some of the best visuals from Smith, a director who excels at various kinetic car chases that populate the film. While the film’s overall pacing is a bit problematic, Smith also allows ample space for Fassbender and Gleason, two actors who always deliver fascinating performances regardless what they’re in. The two shot this film immediately after finishing the recent “Assassin’s Creed” (in which they ironically also played father-and-son) and their work here invokes some of the British crime flicks from the late 60s/early 70s.
Alastair Siddons’ screenplay is heavy with Brogue slang and thick accents that will leave most viewers completely lost. It doesn’t matter since the physicality and expressive reactions of the actors provide enough to go on. Although the foundation of the screenplay is familiar to anyone well-versed in crime family dramas – from the Corleones to the Cody family in David Michôd’s “Animal Kingdom” – it’s Fassbender’s central performance that saves the film from spiraling into mediocrity. He plays Chad as a man still susceptible to his father’s manipulation and intimidation, while desperate to be a better man for his wife and kids. Sadly, he is his own downfall and while that’s primarily due to his father’s nuture (which has left him illiterate and uneducated, leaving crime his only real skill set), there’s a part of Chad that knows his situation is very much his doing.
Fassbender brings out more nuances and dimensions to the role than I want to believe was in the actual script. The character of Chad seems much more predictable than what we see from Fassbender, who conveys a trapped desperation and stifled frustration, both of which he’s trying to hide from his father and his wife and kids. It’s fascinating to watch the actor portray this struggle, especially working off Gleason, another powerhouse presence of an actor. In a movie that could’ve included violence and physical abuse, which is something we expect form Gleason’s Colby, it’s refreshing to see Siddons’ story simply relying on this character’s uncomfortable presence, something that Gleason revels in. No bad guy thinks he’s bad, which is what we see in Colby with his anti-authority and school views, firm in the belief that all any of his clan needs is to remain together and do what he says.
Fassbender and Gleeson are the two main reasons to see “Trespass Against Us” and they are indeed spot-on in their respective roles, showing a growing and understandable friction between the father/son dynamic. Anyone who’s been a fan of these two – and with right reason – would do well to check them out here. As a filmmaker, Smith astutely captures the subtleties of the actor’s performances, from puffing bravado, to emotional frustrations and on to the futility of hope. At times, the story may feel a bit too formulaic, but Smith’s balance of offering high-energy action with contemplative reflection, while providing an intuitive portrait of a barely functional family, makes up for any of the film’s predictability.