The title of “Trespass Against Us,” Adam Smith’s sloppily energetic debut feature, is both a reference to the Lord’s Prayer and a warning to those who would dare cross the Cutlers, a makeshift family of Irish travelers. The clan’s grizzled old patriarch, Colby (Brendan Gleeson), is one of those crusty, crafty lowlifes who like to adopt the pose of a self-styled moral philosopher. “When Jesus has been executed by the police, he never did give up,” he declares at one point, using a fanciful, grammatically tortured reading of Christian belief to enforce the brutish codes of loyalty and obedience that run deep among his tribe.
Among Colby’s other beliefs: The Earth is flat, evolution is a myth and school is a waste of time. His fiefdom is a squalid trailer park in the countryside, where the Cutlers spend most of their time running around and chasing their tails. They fund their modest, nomadic lifestyle by robbing nearby mansions, though at times it seems that what really motivates them is the thrill of the chase — the joy of staying one step ahead of the bumbling local police, as we see in the film’s many scenes of off-roading vehicular mayhem.
Chad (Michael Fassbender), Colby’s son and the movie’s central figure, clearly relishes these daredevil pursuits as much as anyone. The movie’s opening sequence finds him showing the ropes to his son, Tyson (Georgie Smith), letting the boy hold the steering wheel as they try to mow down a rabbit in an open field, with what seems like half their family crammed into the backseat.
If you’re reminded of “Captain Fantastic” or “Little Miss Sunshine” (at one point, the car gets spray-painted bright yellow), it’s probably no coincidence. For better and for worse, “Trespass Against Us” plays like the quirky indie-fication of the family gangster movie, its scrappiness overlaid with a patina of we’re-all-in-this-together slickness. The movie feels more touching than you’d expect, if also less dangerous than it should.
Once the clown car has come to a stop, Chad isn’t such a happy camper. He and his wife, Kelly (Lyndsey Marshal), do their best to make their mobile home a happy one, and they dream of a better, more stable life for their children. (In addition to Tyson, they have a younger daughter, played by Kacie Anderson, to whom they — and the movie — could stand to pay more attention.) Chad never learned to read or write, but he sends his kids to school in hopes that they’ll turn out better, especially if they can all get out from under his dad’s oppressive thumb.
Fassbender is an actor of devilish handsomeness and striking versatility, but this is one of his rare movies in which the former comes perilously close to eclipsing the latter. It’s a pleasure watching him and Gleeson lock horns and spar with each other in sometimes impenetrably thick brogues, but there is something about Fassbender’s movie-star incandescence that refuses to conform to these particular environs. It’s not that he could never play an illiterate thug, but rather that Alastair Siddons’ script is too patchy, too dramatically noncommittal, to really sell the character. (Sean Harris fares better as Gordon, the clothing-optional pyromaniac village idiot of the bunch.)
“Dogs can only play with cats for so long before it’s the dog that gets scratched,” Colby growls at one point — a threat that is underscored, with pointless callousness, by not one but two abrupt canine deaths. The actual dramatic stakes never feel much higher in “Trespass Against Us,” which tells a familiar tale of father-son antipathy and generational difference. For the purposes of this movie and its fascinating Irish-gypsy junkyard milieu, it’s enough.
Smith may have some ways to go as a feature filmmaker, but he has given us a world of such grottily realized depravity that it feels like a story unto itself.
‘Trespass Against Us’
Rating: R, for pervasive language, some disturbing behavior and brief graphic nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills