Colby Cutler (Brendan Gleeson), a glorious slop of a man who wears his black tracksuit like a business uniform, holds court in the squalid trailer park where he lords over his homegrown brood of hick criminals. He’s telling a story to his young grandson, trying to indoctrinate a new generation of Cutlers into the lifestyle that has come to define the family name. It’s hard to make sense of what he’s saying (American ears will probably only be able to pick up every third word), but the punchline comes through loud and clear: “Hell hath no fury like an angry super-goat.”
You’ll laugh, even if you don’t have the foggiest idea what he’s going on about. It’s par for the course in a movie where much of the dialogue becomes meaningless mulch beneath the thick brogues of the film’s feral British characters. However, nearly every line that survives its delivery lands like a gift from the gods. Therein lies the ramshackle charm of “Trespass Against Us,” a hodgepodge of “Animal Kingdom” and “Little Miss Sunshine” that manages to entertain even when you have no idea what it’s trying to say.
It’s a crime drama chewed up by a cheeky sense of humor — or, maybe it’s a quirky comedy set against the miserable campgrounds that lie on the fringes of the criminal underworld. Either way, Adam Smith’s spirited debut is as amusingly daffy and scatterbrained as any of the Cutler boys. And Colby Cutler wouldn’t have it any other way.
Colby is the staunchly antiauthoritarian patriarch of a family not unlike Brad Pitt’s vagabond “pikey” community in “Snatch,” and he raises his flock around a tire fire somewhere in the English countryside. He discourages school — none of the men in this movie can read or write — he’s indifferent to clothing, and he loves the idea of sustaining his family by orchestrating the occasional robbery. Nothing too violent (there’s hardly a gun in the entire film), just the kind of smash-and-grab that keep the characters likable and the local police entertained.
Smith shoots the half-assed heists with a propulsive energy, but he sprinkles the grippingly lo-fi chase sequences with mild absurdity whenever they threaten to gel into the cool terrain of genre. At one point, Colby’s beloved eldest son Chad (a typically roguish Michael Fassbender) eludes a police helicopter by hiding under a cow.
Chad is starting to have doubts about the family business. It’s less of a moral issue than a matter of perspective: Colby thinks the world is flat (literally), but Chad isn’t so sure. His wife (Lyndsey Marshal) is increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of spending the rest of her life in a house on wheels, and his two young kids are about to fall too far behind their classmates to ever catch up.
Working from a hyper-specific screenplay by Alastair Siddons (also making his feature debut), Smith creates a film that thrives on its clear sense of place. The Cutler compound is pungent and palpable, and makes it easy to understand the people who live there, and why it might be difficult to rejoin society. (Chad tries to rent a place in town, but the landlord refuses him on reputation.) Even when the movie becomes a haphazard tonal mishmash in its strained third act — the story seems exasperatingly unsure if Chad’s fate should be determined by the law or the land — the film’s innate feel for its milieu keeps things together.
Smith comes out of TV and music videos, and he staples together “Trespass” with the haphazard electricity of someone who can make something better in the future. Fassbender underlines why he’s one of the few contemporary movie stars who remains an actor above all, compellingly playing Chad as a tender father, a delinquent criminal, and a man who’s tormented by his failure to reconcile the two. Gleeson, indomitable as always, matches him every step of the way.
There’s nothing phony or calculated about their dynamic, and even when “Trespass Against Us” slumps toward the same generational conflicts at the heart of so many recent indies (and a strikingly twee final shot), these actors refuse to reduce their characters into any recognizable archetypes. Smith turns the Cutler family saga into the rare film that’s tense and charming in equal measure, a story about how some things don’t need to make sense in order to believe in them. The Earth is round, Chad learns, even if you can never climb high enough to see over the horizon.
“Trespass Against Us” premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. A24 will release it in 2017.