Stars: Michael Fassbender, Brendan Gleeson, Lyndsey Marshal, Georgie Smith, Killian Scott, Sean Harris, Rory Kinnear, Kingsley Ben-Adair, Kacie Anderson
Writer: Alastair Siddons
Director: Adam Smith
Distributor: A24
Release Date (theatrical and VOD): January 20, 2017

Brendan Gleeson and Michael Fassbender in TRESPASS AGAINST US | © 2017 A24

Brendan Gleeson and Michael Fassbender in TRESPASS AGAINST US | © 2017 A24

TRESPASS AGAINST US takes its title from a familiar prayer, though it’s a safe bet that Colby Cutler (Brendan Gleeson) doesn’t interpret it in the conventional way. The Cutler clan lives in a collection of trailers in a rural section of England. They are ruled by patriarch Colby, who is in his way a devout Christian, as well as being a fearsome criminal. Colby’s eldest son Chad (Michael Fassbender) would like to get out from under Colby’s rule and be free to live with his wife Kelly (Lyndsey Marshal) and their two kids as he sees fit. However, when Colby says Chad has to lead up a burglary, Chad does it; when Chad wants to find a place to move with his family, it’s tough to find anyone who will rent to him once they know Colby prefers to keep his son close.

On the plus side, TRESPASS AGAINST US benefits mightily from Gleeson, who brings an intensity to Colby that burns through the man’s mildest moments. It’s easy to understand how the neighbors would fear him, even though he’s never truly unleashed. Other assets include gorgeous cinematography by Eduard Grau, with a calm view of the English countryside that could inspire poetry. Mention should also be made of the fearless and very physical performance by Sean Harris as a mentally challenged member of the gang.

The heart of the film would seem to be about the battle for Chad’s soul. However, even though we see how he’s trapped by his situation – Chad is illiterate, because he never got to go to school – the more Alastair Siddons’ script tries to plead Chad’s case, the more we want to quarrel with it. Yes, there are grown men living in the shadows cast by one or both parents, but Fassbender seems a little too strong for the job. He, director Adam Smith or both have decided that Chad won’t outwardly seek his father’s approval. Fair enough, but he won’t stand up to him, either. The father/son conflict seethes, but Fassbender plays Chad as enough of an adult that we can’t understand why he doesn’t just tell Colby that he’s leaving.

The filmmakers and Fassbender do give us Chad’s thrill when he’s in the midst of a job with the gang, which makes a case for why he’s tempted to stay. This blurs the issue of whether he wants to leave the thieving game behind, or just his dad. Instead of seeing that there are layers to Chad’s predicament, his motives start to seem watered down. By the finale, we understand why Chad does what he does, but what’s meant as a moving gesture falls flat, largely because by this time, we’re a bit at odds with the apparent message.

The Cutlers resent being persecuted by the police (Colby compares his family to Jesus and the apostles), but this seems less a matter of class prejudice than the fact that the Cutlers keep committing burglaries and kill a police dog.

Some might not deem this worth mentioning, but when a movie starts with a family entertaining their seven-year-old boy by letting him try to run over a rabbit with a car, and then sees the accidental death of a dog as something to shrug at, that can be a barrier to sympathy. When a breeder is reluctant to sell Chad a puppy because “it’s not fair on the dog,” we’re evidently supposed to see this as the height of unreasonable snobbery, instead of a sensible response.

TRESPASS AGAINST US on the one hand wants to give us a realistic look at a hard-living family, and on the other hand reaches for sentiment. It’s lovely to look at and provides food for thought, but it never hits home emotionally.

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