Home siege movies have had a long, fine tradition in Hollywood cinema, from the play adaptation The Petrified Forest which made a star out of Humphrey Bogart, to other subsequent Bogart movies such as Key Largo and The Desperate Hours, on to modern films in the violent mode such as the British thriller from 1967 The Penthouse, and also including in that same year The Incident (the first "hostages on a subway" movie), with the all-star cast of Martin Sheen, Beau Bridges, Ruby Dee, Jack Gilford, Ed McMahon, Gary Merrill, Donna Mills, Tony Musante, and Thelma Ritter. The '60s were much concerned with the moral weight of violence in movies, especially in the wake of the Kitty Genovese incident in New York City, itself to lead to the TV movie called, among other things, Death Scream, also with an all-star cast, including Raul Julia, Edward Asner, Cloris Leachman, Art Carney, Diahann Carroll, Kate Jackson, Tina Louise, Sally Kirkland, and Helen Hunt. But after the wave of violence movies in the 1970s, the home siege movie became just another, and often cheaper, way to shoot a thriller. The premiere example in the 1970s, and one of the most controversial was Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left. Recent examples of the genre include the arty Michael Haneke film Funny Games, David Fincher's Panic Room, the Bruce Willis vehicle Hostage, the Charlize Theron film Trapped, the recent The Entitled, and now Trespass.
It's easy to see what there would be an upswing of interest in films about homes under siege. As the economy causes worry in the mass of people, filmmakers seem to be naturally drawn to topics that prey upon our anxieties. Since half of us go to movies for the expiation of our fears rather than the masking of them, these filmmakers have a market. But also the family under siege genre gives thoughtful or observant filmmakers a chance to explore the temperature of the modern domestic unit. This is what horror directors in the '70s did, while at the same time exploring the visual craft of storytelling with an exuberance that would be distracting in a conventional tale.
Trespass begins with diamond merchant Kyle Miller (Nicolas Cage) driving his convertible through an exclusive, wooded area, clearly trying to raise money via his cell phone (the film was shot in Shreveport). At his elaborate, cold modernist home, still partially under construction, his wife Sarah (Nicole Kidman) is feuding with daughter Avery (Liana Liberato), who wants to go to a party with her bad-influence best friend. Later, Avery sneaks out with said friend, and while she is gone, three men (and their moll) dressed as cops con their way into the home and demand the goods in Miller's safe. For the next 90 minutes, there is a battle of wills between the erratic but heavily armed gang members and the Millers, with Kyle playing various cards in order to spare his family. Meanwhile, every 15 minutes or so, a new revelation augments what the viewers have come to assume about the nature of the various characters' relationships.
This is B-movie material with A-list actors in the leads, and unknowns in all the other parts. Ms. Kidman has done home siege films before (Dead Calm), and was almost in Panic Room. Cage does a variation on his Vampire's Kiss persona of businessman gone awry. Despite what some reviews have claimed, Cage is not as over the top as he has been in other films under weaker directors. The rest of the cast is fine in what amounts to standard hard guy TV roles. Still, the film is effective, and has surprising turns, and the script, credited to one Karl Gajdusek, does explore a modern American family under the alternating but linked stresses of financial distress and internal dissension. It's certainly a timely theme, and the tale fits snugly into the dominant ideology, as the boys in the quarterlies would have it, that reasserts the primacy of the heteorsexual family unit.
Trespass is made by the now 72-year-old Joel Schumacher, the former store window dresser who usually famously "gayifies" otherwise standard product, such as Batman Forever with its Hollywood gym hunks and nipple-augmented pecs. From his directorial debut, the Lily Tomlin vehicle The Incredible Shrinking Woman through the recent youth-and-drugs philosophical treatise Twelve, Mr. Schumacher's career has had variety to it without much in the way of progress. Mocked by most serious film writers, Mr. Schumacher's output is most similar to that of Franco Zeffirelli (Romeo and Juliet, Endless Love) while falling short of the decor excesses of the also similar Baz Luhrman (Mr. Schumacher is the only one of the three who hasn't yet directed a version of Romeo and Juliet). He has only done one film that seems suited to his original skills (The Phantom of the Opera), the rest being the standard career trajectory of a working director in the '90s and '00s: teen movies (The Lost Boys) and brat pack films (St. Elmo's Fire), Julia Roberts films (Dying Young, Flatliners), the inevitable John Grisham adaptations (The Client, the clunky A Time to Kill), and the comic actor's career reboot attempt (Jim Carrey in The Number 23). He likes to work with Colin Farrell (Phone Booth, Tigerland). From time to time he is attracted to political allegories, such as Falling Down, which he has handled with all the delicacy of a Stanley Kramer. He has made memorable pulp, but nothing you could call a really great film. Yet Trespass proves to be an effective and efficient film. Perhaps the the septuagenerian helmer found its unity of location easier on his nerves and strength. Whatever the reason, Trespass blends action, suspense, and subtle sociopolitical exploration in a brisk package, making it probably his best work. For this one movie, perhaps we can forgive Mr. Schumacher his trespasses.