52nd Chicago International Film Festival Special Presentation
“TRESPASS AGAINST US”
When it comes to crime families in movies, any contenders and pretenders that want to be taken seriously are kissing the Corleone ring of “The Godfather” trilogy. That’s not happening with the Cutler clan in Adam Smith’s “Trespass Against Us.” As a mishmash of trailer park trash puffing their chests to operate with supposed principles, they occupy the polar opposite end of the glamorous spectrum of organized crime. Call them an “Irish fugazi,” if you will, complete with their own membership rings and cracks in the hierarchy.
Michael Fassbender, the man you will watch in anything because it’s Michael Fassbender, stars as Chad Cutler, the daring wheelman of a family gang of small-time, smash-and-grab crooks. For years, he’s been orchestrating and performing jobs for his father, Colby Cutler. Brendan Gleeson, another sure thing, plays the patriarch of this podunk rabble of circled RVs and camping hanger-ons, including the twitchy screw-loose Gordon (Fassbender’s “Macbeth” adversary and “Mission: Impossible- Rogue Nation” villain Sean Harris).
Chad has reached the stress point where he has had enough the dead-end lifestyle and is tired of the constant police harassment, characterized primarily by Rory Kinners’s P.C. Lovage. He is a married father of two pre-teen kids and has begun to see the bad influence both himself and his extended family have made on his children, particularly his impressionable son Tyson (Georgie Smith). Chad is making plans with his wife Kelly (Lyndsay Marshal of “Hereafter”) to find the courage and means to remove themselves from the toxic situation. The problem is saying no to dad Colby, who will play the guilt card of family abandonment in one hand and twist the knife of dominance in the other.
“Trespass Against Us” is the feature film debut of TV director Adam Smith and he has surrounded himself with gifted talent. Michael Fassbender is a compelling lead playing a father with his own daddy issues (see the lessons below). As always, he is fascinating to watch, a calculated actor constantly in control of the way he lets himself or his character unhinge. Brendan Gleeson matches his stride as the morally corrupt and unpredictable leader pulling the strings.
If there is a wasted actor in the ensemble, it’s Sean Harris, who has proven loudly elsewhere that he can do more than play the filthy team imbecile. I expected more menace and threat from a presence of Harris’s caliber. His angles go nowhere and, sometimes, so does the whole film as it teeters between taut crime thriller and dysfunctional family drama.
On the job, “Trespass Against Us” really moves, sped along by outstanding stunt work from coordinator Gareth Milne (“Skyfall”) and his team. The heist and ensuing pursuit scenes are impressive for a film of this size and shot by up-and-coming cinematographer Eduard Grau (“The Gift,” “A Single Man”). Smith must have called in a favor to bring in The Chemical Brothers, one of his previous documentary subjects, for a buzzing musical score.
On the lam, the film too often grinds its gears and dulls its edgy tone. The turn-over-a-new-leaf elements of parental challenges lack engagement come up empty. By the time, Kelly and Chad go in for a trainwreck parent-teacher conference, you want off the hook too. Pissing and moaning about the trailer park life, hazing each other, and talking big promises over cigarettes and profanity-laced diatribes, the film can be as lazy as its criminals between gigs. If you stick with it, stay for Fassbender and the spurts of tantalizing criminal thrills.
LESSON #1: DON’T BE A CRIMINAL — This is lesson is too easy, but if Chad really wants to raise his kids to have a chance at not turning into him, he should have went straight years ago. Stand up to your leader. Quit while you are ahead. Getting arrested makes you an absentee and deadbeat father, exactly what you don’t want to be, in seconds.
LESSON #2: DADDY ISSUES BEGET MORE DADDY ISSUES — What you’re watching here is a crossroads moment of a son trying to stand up to his father, do right for his own son, and an older father who still seeks to assert his authority and control. Chad is the way he is because of Colby’s manipulation and, successful or not, Tyson has already seen too much and started down the the wrong path thanks to both of them. No one is getting cured easily.