In the centerpiece scene of the eccentric UK crime dramedy “Trespass Against Us,” the cocky son of an unlikely mastermind leads his gang on their biggest smash-and-grab yet: driving through the ceiling-to-floor-length front windows of a country estate, and then driving off again with millions of dollars worth of art and antiques. Michael Fassbender plays the heist’s point-man, Chad Cutler, who reluctantly takes the assignment from his dad and boss, Colby (Brendan Gleeson), yet comes to life when he’s behind the wheel of the getaway car, leading the cops on a chase through narrow streets and bumpy fields. Here’s how much Chad secretly craves action: When he and his boys get a big enough lead on the law, he pulls into a mini-mart and orders a lackey to run in and buy cigarettes, while wailing sirens are closing in.
The big art-boost in “Trespass Against Us” is one of multiple car-chases. The film actually begins in furious motion, with Chad teaching his six-year-old son Tyson to drive by letting him tear through a meadow in pursuit of a rabbit. There’s so much tire-squealing and police-baiting in fact that one of the closest points of comparison for this movie is the chase-crazy ‘80s American TV hit “The Dukes of Hazzard.” The difference is that the Duke boys and their Uncle Jesse were good guys; while no one would accuse the Cutler crew of playing Robin Hood. They steal only for themselves, and then rendezvous at the circle of camper vans that Colby has parked in the middle of nowhere — like a 21st century version of circled wagons out on the American frontier.
Beyond ‘The Dukes,’ it’s tough to know what to compare “Trespass Against Us” to. The complicated relationship between a crooked father and son recalls another small-scaled British crime picture, “Down Terrace.” The iconoclastic, anti-social family is reminiscent of the recent indie hit “Captain Fantastic.” And the exploration of a one-of-a-kind counterculture milieu hearkens back to superb ‘70s American B-movies like “Cockfighter,” “Vanishing Point,” and “Payday,” where the emphasis was on recreating a strange little world on-screen and then populating it with colorful characters.
It’s also hard to say exactly what inspired “Trespass Against Us” writer-producer Alastair Siddons and director Adam Smith — or even if they fully knew what they were doing. The movie doesn’t have much of a plot. Throughout, Chad makes plans to get his wife Kelly (Lyndsey Marshal) and their two kids away from Colby and his gaggle of freaks and low-lifes; but that storyline never really comes to much. Much of the second half of the film deals with the aftermath of the mansion job, which is so splashy that the authorities can’t ignore it as just “the Cutlers being the Cutlers.” But even here, the noose-tightening is too sudden to function as a suspense-builder, or even as a major narrative driver. And very little time is spent on fleshing out the story of Kelly and Chad’s long romance, or how the kooky Colby came to be a country kingpin.
But while it’s tricky to pin down exactly what “Trespass Against Us” means to be, it’s easy to enjoy what it actually is. Gleeson helps transform Colby Cutler into a memorable menace. He’s a philosophical patriarch, who doesn’t have much respect for traditional education. Instead, he spews misremembered maxims and bits of fundamentalist Christian dogma, all supporting his worldview that the Earth is flat, children should be taught to be scrappy, and people need to stick with their own kind. Gleeson seems to be having a ball delivering Siddons’ flavorful dialogue, which is full of twisted turns of phrase like, “God’s medicine, prison can be.”
Is it convincing that someone as handsome and poised as Fassbender could be the illiterate son of a pathetic self-made mobster? Not entirely. But the actor’s natural charisma and range sell his character anyway. At times, the dynamic between the Cutlers resembles the classic BBC sitcom “Steptoe and Son,” which was about another dad who burdened his child with an embarrassing legacy that the kid nevertheless occasionally wore as a badge of pride. In his head, Chad knows that Tyson should get an education, so he won’t end up living his whole life in a trailer-home in the woods, pulling robberies for his grandpa with the help of a bunch of half-wits and misfits. But part of him also wants his boy to feel the thrill of pressing hard on the gas while fleeing a stick-up, secure in the knowledge that it’s easier to survive a car chase if you genuinely don’t care what condition your vehicle’s in when the day is done. [B+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.