Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For July, we honor the chameleonic genre-bending of the recently-passed Joel Schumacher, who embraced camp thrills and pulp trash in equal measure. Read the rest of our coverage here.
In the season seven American Dad! episode “Old Stan in the Mountain”, there’s a recurring gag involving Roger and his compulsive lying. Throughout the episode, Roger keeps telling Francine to come along with him on various missions: a dance competition, a funeral, and finally dumping the corpse of an ex-lover. Each time, there comes a point where Roger reveals his true motivations. Such reveals start with the phrase “Francine, I haven’t been entirely truthful with you.”
Joel Schumacher’s final film, 2011’s Trespass, is like if somebody decided to play that ludicrous American Dad! gag with a straight face. When it’s done by a cartoon alien, it’s funny; when it’s a live-action cast wasted in a low-budget groaner from one of Hollywood’s greatest chameleons, it’s tiresome and disappointing.
Trespass starts with a seemingly normal afternoon for the well-off Miller family. Kyle (Nicolas Cage) and Sarah Miller (Nicole Kidman) live in a glamorous house with their rebellious teenage daughter, Avery (Liana Liberato). Just as Avery races out to attend a party, a group of men, led by Elias (Ben Mendelsohn), break into the Miller home. They proceed to point guns at the heads of Kyle and Sarah and reveal their demands. Turns out, they want an assortment of diamonds stored in Kyle’s safe.
From here, screenwriter Karl Gajdusek begins to pile on every twist imaginable to keep the tension going. Kyle and Elias are always trading lines consisting exclusively of new complications that the other person didn’t know about. Elias doesn’t know that diamonds are encoded with tracking labels! That makes it impossible to steal and sell them! But! Kyle didn’t know that Elias is aware that there’s also tons of cash stored somewhere on the premises. What a twist!
Besides evoking an American Dad! gag, this tendency of Gajdusek’s script also reminds one of a child refusing to lose in a game. The nonsensical adolescent ramblings of “Well, I brought my dinosaur who eats force-field dogs!” are embodied in these exchanges in Trespass. Creating tension in this manner doesn’t just produce laughable lines of dialogue; it’s also antithetical to making good thrillers. Schumacher’s no stranger to tightly-knit, elegant thrillers – see Phone Booth. All that movie needed to generate tension was Colin Farrell and a payphone.
Trespass, meanwhile, is convoluted rather than suspenseful. Within its twisty-for-no-reason narrative is a series of revelations related to Sarah’s faithfulness to Kyle. At first, it looks like she’s been having an affair with one of the robbers, Jonah (Cam Gigandet). We see shirtless Jonah hanging out with Sarah by Kyle’s pool in a flashback. Jonah also can’t stop talking about how he and Sarah are in love. Trespass isn’t content to have that be the big story twist, though — another clumsy flashback makes it clear that Sarah never had any feelings for Jonah. It’s a plot twist turducken.
Creating tension in this manner doesn’t just produce laughable lines of dialogue; it’s also antithetical to making good thrillers.
When everything in a movie is a surprise, nothing is. How can one get invested in any of these people when their motivations are never certain?
The lack of defined personalities for the characters means that the actors are pretty much left adrift. Kidman, for example, is no stranger to either fun camp or working with Schumacher. Surely the woman who used the Bat-Signal to fulfill her horniness in Batman Forever could bring something to liven up Trespass. Instead, Kidman is stuck with nothing to do but react to other characters: first it’s her daughter’s petulance, then it’s her husband’s orders and Jonah’s romantic infatuations. Sarah Miller is never a human being; she’s a vessel to develop more drama. You can’t spin gold out of that, even if you’re Nicole Friggin’ Kidman.
Cage’s Kyle Avery, however, is a bit more active. An early scene where he breathlessly rattles off the procedure for tracking down diamonds is something to which only Cage could totally commit. But those looking for a classic live-wire Cage performance should look elsewhere. Too much of Trespass sidelines him; he never gets the chance to give us the madcap energy we’re expecting. As the main villain, Mendelsohn delivers one of his more forgettable slimeball performances — a shame, since he’s usually so memorable even in the most disposable schlock (paging 2018’s Robin Hood).
‘Forgettable’ isn’t usually a word one associates with Schumacher’s works. His Batman films, for example, may have earned a lot of scorn, but they are memorable. People still talk about Bat Credit Cards and “Ice to see you!”, and other beloved works he either wrote or directed (The Wiz or The Lost Boys) become iconic because of Schumacher’s bold artistic swings. Rarely did Schumacher settle for the ordinary.
But Trespass, which would sadly prove to be Schumacher’s final film, has none of his usual creative vigor. Instead, it’s a hokey DTV-level home invasion flick that wastes a game cast and bludgeons the audience with so many twists it would make Alfred Hitchcock turn his head. Roger the alien may not have been entirely truthful with Francine, but to say that Trespass is criminally disposable is the saddest, rawest honesty.