Directed by Walter Hill
Written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis
With Bill Paxton, Ice-T, William Sadler, Ice Cube, and Art Evans.
It’s not exactly a stunning declaration to say that history is held in nearly complete disregard by most Americans, but the malady seems particularly acute among film critics. While they might sing the praises of films like Psycho and Rio Bravo, which were vilified by reviewers at the time of their release, they appear to be oblivious to the danger of overlooking the contemporary Rio Bravos staring them right in the face.
The critical indifference to Walter Hill’s latest and best film, Trespass, is curiously reminiscent of a situation in 1958, when Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones, a well-intentioned but cardboard examination of race relations, was lauded, while Orson Welles’s far superior film noir, Touch of Evil, was looked upon with disdain. Today one would be extremely hard-pressed to find a film scholar or critic of any stature who would argue that Kramer’s film is better than Touch of Evil, now considered to be one of Welles’s crowning achievements as a director. Yet in 1958 the socially conscious piety of The Defiant Ones obscured the more subtle (though certainly not unfathomable) pleasures of Welles’s genre film.
Over 30 years later, history seems to be repeating itself. The 1992 equivalent of Stanley Kramer is Spike Lee, whose self-aggrandizing “epic” (in length alone, not in content) Malcolm X is topping critics’ top-ten lists all across the country. The film offers no insight into Malcolm X that couldn’t be gleaned from the most cursory glance at his autobiography, and critics seem happy to praise Lee for addressing racial issues without considering how he deals with them. (Surprisingly, no one has even mentioned that the opening shot after the credit sequence isn’t of Malcolm X but of Spike Lee.)
Trespass is also a film about race, but of equal importance is that it’s about the pure joy of filmmaking, in which each cut, composition, and camera movement contributes to the film thematically. Trespass’s fatal flaw is that it is an action movie, which assures that it will not be considered as art in the same way that Malcolm X is–at least not for another 30 years or so.
Like just about any classic genre film that comes to mind, Trespass uses a deceptively simple premise as the foundation for exploring deeper issues–though Hill never allows these issues to get in the way of the film’s main order of business, delivering an efficient action story. Two white firemen, Vince (Bill Paxton) and Don (William Sadler), explore an abandoned factory after being given a treasure map showing that millions of dollars’ worth of stolen gold is hidden there. At the same time a black gang led by King James (Ice-T) and Savon (Ice Cube) comes to the same building to execute a traitorous member. When James spots Vince through a window, the encounter escalates into a turf war between the black gang and the two whites (who manage to take James’s brother, Lucky, as a hostage).
The film opens with a video image of a murder; as the movie progresses it’s explained that one of the members of the gang carries a camcorder with him at all times and tapes the group’s exploits. What at first seems a gimmick eventually becomes an integral component of the narrative; the camera not only helps maintain the audience’s awareness of time (its viewfinder displays the time of day in one of its corners) but reinforces one of the film’s primary themes: the futility of man’s attempts to immortalize himself.
At first the gang seem to appreciate their electronic chronicler, referred to good-naturedly as “Video.” Indeed, he seems to serve no purpose in the group aside from recording their exploits for posterity. At one point King James even addresses Video’s camera directly, giving a monologue about Savon’s unfocused, violent energy. However, as tensions grow and the gang members begin to lose control of the situation, Video becomes less and less welcome. The gang want their escapades documented, but only in a manner that’s favorable to their image.
King James and his crew aren’t the only ones interested in attaining immortality. When Vince and Don first acquire the information about the stolen gold, it doesn’t even occur to Vince that he could make the treasure his own; he’s simply thrilled that he and Don could solve a 50-year-old crime. While Don is motivated by pure greed, Vince goes along on the treasure hunt for adventure; as he tells Don, he’d often gone into abandoned buildings as a boy with the ambition of finding money or a dead body and, most important, having his picture printed in the paper.
The uselessness of the characters’ quest for immortality is established by their surroundings and by the very object of their search. As conceived by production designer Jon Hutman, the factory is a structure representing absolute permanence; Don notes that it’s been there for a long time, and will be there long after he and Vince are dead. The building’s high ceilings dwarf its inhabitants, whose violent acts and constant bickering seem petty and inconsequential juxtaposed with the looming structure that encloses them. The factory isn’t the only thing that will outlast the characters; the gold for which they’re willing to risk their lives will too. As one character notes, you can melt gold, stomp on it, urinate on it, and it will still be gold. Alongside such a formidable prize, and despite their arsenal of weapons, the men seem extremely fragile.
Films like Lee’s Do the Right Thing, John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood, and Malcolm X hint at the obvious fact that friction between blacks and whites is economically motivated, but Trespass is the first Hollywood film to confront that notion head-on. Hill typically defines his characters by what motivates them to commit acts of violence; in Trespass the motivation for violence, and for racism as well, is money.
The first instance of interracial strife comes not between the firemen and the gang, but between the firemen and Bradlee (Art Evans), a homeless man who sleeps in the abandoned factory. Vince finds a can hidden in the floor that contains Bradlee’s money, and when he begins counting the cash, Bradlee attacks him. Don then comes in and begins to assault Bradlee, eventually tying him up and gagging him. Hill establishes with absolute clarity the fact that this violent scrape was initiated by a dispute over money, but he never indulges in the kind of moment Spike Lee almost invariably engineers, when a character states the film’s thesis in the most numbingly obvious manner possible.
While Vince sees Bradlee as simply an unexpected variable, Don seems to regard him with utter hatred. Vince’s solution to the problems Bradlee raises is to cut him in on the gold, but Don wants no sort of alliance with the man because he sees him as a shiftless bum supported by his tax money. Don’s racism does not grow out of any personal experience with blacks but out of his belief that they’re costing him money. It doesn’t occur to Don to make Bradlee self-sufficient by giving him a cut of the gold; Don perpetuates his own racism, seeking to ensure that Bradlee will always be the idle derelict he sees him as.
Interracial confrontation accounts for only part of the tension in Trespass. In order to get his crew to perform special duties for him, King James has to give them large sums of money, and their loyalty lasts only as long as the money does. When Raymond, a character to whom James has paid hundreds of dollars, finds the firemen’s treasure map, he promptly abandons even the pretense of loyalty to James and joins forces with Savon to find the loot. And as they get closer to the gold, Savon and Raymond’s union disintegrates as quickly as the one between Raymond and James had.
In Boyz N the Hood Singleton shows young black men killing other young black men but fails to consider seriously the origins of the problem; Trespass screenwriters Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale make the warehouse walls, in which money is hidden, a metpahor for the walls set up between and within races. This is filmmaking at its zenith, relying on purely visual means of communicating ideas while taking full advantage of the thriller’s visceral possibilities. If one of the great attributes of film is its ability to manipulate time and space, then surely Hill is one of the true masters of the medium, using time (always firmly established through Video’s viewfinder display) and environment (the threatening labyrinth of the factory) to create mounting tension throughout the movie.
Hill is also one of the most proficient directors in Hollywood when it comes to using editing as an expressive tool. Rather than employ the same cutting pattern throughout, Hill and his editor, Freeman Davies, respond to the demands of each individual scene. While many of the frenetic action sequences rely on a succession of quick cuts, there are also shots that go on just a little too long or begin before the characters enter the frame. These oddly timed shots not only leave the audience feeling uneasy but, when juxtaposed with lingering, carefully composed shots of the factory towering over its inhabitants, reinforce the idea of its permanence.
The simple fact is that in Trespass one finds perfect unity between form and content, to the point that they become indistinguishable. That unity is probably one of the reasons it’s not receiving its due from most film reviewers, however. It’s much easier to talk about the separate, unrelated elements of Malcolm X–the production design, Denzel Washington’s performance, and the use of the Rodney King footage–than it is to discern how a convoluted but well-integrated movie like Trespass operates. Like the underrated genre director Bill Duke (Deep Cover), Hill is the victim of critical laziness, at least for now. We’ll see where he stands in 2022.