TRESPASS AGAINST US. Michael Fassbender, Brendan Gleeson, Lyndsey Marshal, Sean Harris, Rory Kinnear, Killian Scott. Directed by Adam Smith. 99 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong coarse language and nudity)
‘Trespass Against Us’ is the second film in recent memory to star Brendan Gleeson and Michael Fassbender as father and son, the other being the blockbuster ‘Assassin’s Creed’. Both men are stars and for good reason – they are dynamic and chameleonic screen presences and bringing them together produces veritable chemistry. Here, the pair is aided by a strong supporting cast, and together they lift this straightforward crime drama out of mediocrity. It doesn’t get any points for breaking genre boundaries, but the cast alone makes for absorbing viewing.
Fassbender plays Chad Cutler, a man living in the long shadow of his father Colby (Brendan Gleeson). Chad has two kids his wife Kelly (Lyndsey Marshal), six-year-old Tyson (Georgie Smith, wonderful) and youngest Mini (Kacie Anderson, symbolically verging on mute. They live in one of several caravans on a block of land somewhere in North Britain, a kind of shanty town over which Colby is master. The adult male residents are all heavily involved in crimes plotted out roughly by Colby, the proceeds of which fund their modest but relatively carefree lifestyles, which includes a constantly refreshed menagerie of animals living all through their campsite.
Chad is an uneducated but wily sort – he cannot read, yet during one tense chase with police, he manages to shield himself from a police helicopter’s infrared camera by hiding underneath a grazing cow. He wants a better life for his family, particularly for Tyson, whom he can see being pulled in by Colby’s magnetic charisma. He wants Tyson and Mini to get the schooling he was never offered and wants Kelly to have the proper bricks-and-mortar home that she longs for, yet his world is one in which no decisions are made without Colby’s approval. Try as he might, he cannot wriggle free from his father’s clutches. Chad’s brother Brian has already met the raw end of this lot in life and is serving a prison term as the film begins.
Director Adam Smith sprinkles a few tense car chases in amongst the drama, bringing Chad to life behind the wheel of a few aggressively-drifting Subarus, evading police cars and choppers alike. This is where Chad is most at home, spinning his tyres in full contempt of the law and outside his father’s jurisdiction. Even when he is inevitably picked up by local cop P.C. Lovage (Rory Kinnear, suitably brusque), there is never enough evidence with which to lay charges against him. However, as the sombre score by Tom Rowlands (one half of English duo The Chemical Brothers) underlines, this lifestyle cannot go one forever.
There are any number of films that ask us to sympathise with an antihero, and Fassbender’s performance makes it easy to do so here. We can see flashes of what made Kelly fall for him, despite his heavy family baggage. We feel for him, trying to grow in his father’s shadow, trying to care for his family when he knows that what’s best for them means severing ties with his old man. Gleeson’s Colby is more villainous, an abuser both physical and intellectual. He identifies as Christian (giving the film its title in one conversation) but his faith is used mainly to justify his own actions or to confuse Tyson’s understanding of science with fundamentalism. Standing up to Colby most is Kelly, who has a distance from the Cutler clan that her husband does not. Lyndsey Marshal gives a brilliantly conflicted performance, juggling the love and frustration that comes from her relationship with Chad. She is the film’s nexus between the Cutler clan and the outside world and her conflicted outlook gives the audience a door into their lives.
Yet even the best cast in the world can’t entirely resurrect a premise that has been done before and done much better. The script, from Alastair Siddons, reminded me greatly of ‘Animal Kingdom’, the Australian classic from a few years go. The story doesn’t shed any new light on the basic premise (member of crime family wants out), and the ending, which tries to wrap up on a somewhat triumphant note, doesn’t sit comfortably with the reality that the film has worked so hard to establish. However, the premise has become a trope because it is innately compelling, and it is fun to watch these actors sink their teeth into their archetypes. It’s like going to see Shakespeare – you’ve probably seen it before, but you’re going to watch the cast and the director’s take on the material.
What should have been a unique look at family and crime in Britain’s North, ends up an unoriginal retread, albeit one with a dynamite cast. The actors are uniformly great, and they deserved better – ‘Trespass Against Us’ could have been so much more.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out February 16.