At first glance, Trespass Against Us is a story about one, very specific time and place, a small Irish traveller community — probably most familiar to North American audiences from Brad Pitt’s marble-mouthed bare-knuckle brawler in Snatch — butting up against the establishment. But as the film unfolds, it quickly becomes clear that it’s about a far more universal subject: fathers and sons, and the sometimes inevitable clash between the two.
Which, fine. That’s a story that’s been told many times before. What makes this particular one stand out, though, is just who’s playing the father and son: Brendan Gleeson and Michael Fassbender.
After a distinguished career working in TV, commercials and most notably, providing visuals for The Chemical Brothers (who contributed the score here), British director Adam Smith eyed making a small, low-budget indie film for his feature debut. Telling the inspired-by-real-life story of a tight-knit clan of outlaws eking out a living by robbing the Irish countryside’s more well-to-do residents.
Then Fassbender signed on. “Suddenly the expectations became very big,” Smith laughed, when I sat down with him in advance of the movie’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last September.
But that has largely been Fassbender’s M.O. as an actor, even as he’s graduated to the Hollywood A-list – alternating between big franchise blockbusters and smaller indie dramas, and racking up a pair of Oscar nominations along the way. “We’re in a very privileged position as actors, to be working,” Fassbender explained, and it’s a privilege he doesn’t take lightly. The trick is not to treat the dramas and the blockbusters any differently, he said: “Everything I do, I take seriously.” Even if – especially if – the job requires “putting on a purple helmet and a cloak and pretending to move metal objects,” he laughed.
In Trespass Against Us though, Fassbender trades his super-suit in for a sweatsuit, playing Chad Cutler, the wheelman for his father’s misfit gang of travellers. But Chad harbours dreams of getting out of the family B&E business, maybe moving his wife (Lyndsey Marshal) and two young kids into a more settled community, and giving his own son the proper education he was denied. Gleeson’s Colby, meanwhile, is more interested in teaching his grandson the proper way to give the finger to The Man, and their resulting battle of wills courses throughout the movie.
But it also forces Fassbender into a role we’re not typically used to seeing from the actor. Here’s a man who cuts a commanding presence on-screen, whether he’s dismantling entire skyscrapers with his mind in the X-Men movies or frothing with fury as a Southern slaveowner in 12 Years a Slave. And yet, there’s a moment in Trespass Against Us when Cutler and son are riding back from the police station, with Fassbender in the passenger seat all slouched and petulant, like a moody teen. It’s a striking image, and to Fassbender’s credit, it’s one that’s hard to imagine another A-list leading man being willing to agree to. (Go ahead and try to picture Mark Wahlberg checking his ego like that. It’s impossible.)
“Michael is a powerful force, in real life and as an actor on the screen,” said Smith. But as Chad, he’s playing a 30-something illiterate, still living with his dad and still letting his father essentially run his life. “You’re only going to believe that if his dad is a pretty powerful man,” he explained.
Enter Gleeson, who Fassbender said has been a “hero” of his for years. Ever since he first saw the elder actor on stage in Dublin as a teen, to be exact. “He made a real impression on me,” he recalled. And even though this was the first time the two had worked together, Fassbender said he’d always felt a special connection to his fellow Irishman.
And that dynamic is exactly what Smith picked up on when it came time to cast the two. “I’d seen a picture of Brendan and Michael together, just socially, at some event,” the director recalled. “There was something about the way that Brendan had his arm around Michael that very much said, ‘I’m the elder patriarch in this relationship.’ ” There was a respect from Fassbender, he explained, and it was something both actors were able to tap into when it came to shoot. “You buy it, don’t you? Them as father and son,” said Smith.
He’s right, of course. And ultimately, it’s the key to buying the rest of Trespass Against Us too, a little indie crime drama that, like so many others, pits two tough, obstinate men against one another. The only difference is, this time, they happen to be father and son.