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Dustin Putman

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Trigger Man  (2007)
3 Stars
Directed by Ti West.
Cast: Reggie Cunningham, Ray Sullivan, Sean Reid, Heather Robb, James Felix McKenney, Larry Fessenden.
2007 – 80 minutes
Not Rated: (equivalent of an R for strong violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, October 2008.

I'll be home tonight.

Writer-director Ti West is one of this decade's best-kept secrets in genre filmmaking. With just two movies—as of this writing, a third and fourth are on the way—he has proven that, when it comes to generating the kind of quietly simmering, armrest-clenching suspense he so brilliantly ratchets, there is simply no one better than him working today. High praise, certainly, but the fact that West has thus far been able to achieve breathless levels of intensity while working with budgets that would make a shoestring look thick is quite astounding. His first feature was 2005's "The Roost," a savvy vampire story involving a rustic barn and bats galore that put me on edge and made me jump out of my seat throughout. The more-realistic, just-as-frightening "Trigger Man" is even better, a taut-as-a-vise-grip sophomore effort that is significant of anything but a slump.

Using an unhurried, observational cinema verité style, Ti West wraps the ADD-free viewer around his finger like a slowly twisting rubber band that starts cutting off circulation. The film opens with the Manhattan skyline, the bricks and steel of society's industrialization at odds with a somewhat similar-looking but very different building that appears later. Sean (Sean Reid), late-20s, drives into the city to pick up old friends Reggie (Reggie Cunningham) and Ray (Ray Sullivan), whom he hasn't seen much of since their lives went in different directions. The three of them head to a woodsy stretch in Delaware for a day of hanging out and hunting for bucks. The slowness of sitting around waiting for something to happen and the unspoken truth that things have changed between them leads to monotony and temporarily flared tempers. Only minutes after the strike of noon, a gunshot will be heard in the vicinity, blood will splatter on Reggie's face, and their presumptions of seclusion and safety will abruptly and cruelly be shattered. Meanwhile, through a clearing in the forest, across a reservoir, looms a long-abandoned factory, its seemingly decrepit desolation quite possibly not so desolate, anymore.

"Trigger Man" should become a mainstay example of how to pull off minimalist horror. With the sharpness of a woodchipper blade and the precision of a seamstress, director Ti West has taken his barebones screenplay—dialogue could probably be compiled together and fit on two script pages—and worked out of it one of the creepiest lingering atmospheres in recent years. A cello- and percussion-based music score by Jeff Grace meticulously underscores the images, making even the simplest shots of people walking through the woods or sitting on logs seem terrifyingly threatening. The crap hits the fan in the second half of "Trigger Man," but it is before this, just in the way Ti West (who also acts as cinematographer and editor) naturalistically sets up the locations and teases the viewer with the possibility of what might occur to the characters, that the film works just as well.

Early on, as Reggie, Ray and Sean reach their destination and slip on orange hunting vests, they take this precaution as a way of keeping sure that other hunters in the area do not mistake them for prey. The irony is that this is arguably the very reason they transform into the hunted, the garish material standing out and acting as an easy target for a psychopath with a gun. As a horrified Reggie sees both of his companions struck down and fears even moving an inch lest he make himself an easy shot, it is the mere potential that something is about to happen to him at any moment that raises the viewer's blood pressure. And, when Reggie suspects the culprit is lurking over at the dilapidated factory, an unseen force of evil who has almost taken on the role of God's eye, one shudders at the very thought. As much as Reggie and friends Sean and Ray are the leads, it is the factory itself that is the most unforgettable character. An inanimate construction symbolizing the inexplicable darkness of human nature and the world at large, it stands over the proceedings, silent, daring Reggie to come closer.

When more bodies turn up—whoever is shooting, it is clear he/she/they have been doing it for a while—a distraught Reggie finally does get the courage to edge his way toward the building. The climax—twenty minutes of disquieting apprehension, told in only a handful of camera shots and no dialogue—is so effortlessly orchestrated and yet simplistic at the same time that one has to wonder why most big-budgeted horror films have such trouble being the least bit scary. This one delivers all you expect from a genre pic in spades, and it is only in the culminating moment where the shooter is revealed that the pressure diffuses a little. Since the movie is not about who is committing the crimes, but about the very fact that crimes of this cold-blooded nature can, and are, happening, it was not necessary for Ti West to give the shooter a face. That's beside the point.

"Trigger Man" seems like something Gus Van Sant might have made if his forte was tension-driven thrillers. Sharing the deliberate pacing of Van Sant's recent exhilarating experimental work—2003's "Elephant," 2005's "Last Days," 2008's "Paranoid Park"—director Ti West takes his time and allows seemingly authentic life to unfold on camera. By doing this, he is able to capture the subtleties of person-to-person interaction and the intimacy of the human condition with unbatted eyelashes and a truthful clarity. Additionally, West's three central actors, all of them either relative novices or first-timers, benefit from their inexperience. Told to just exist on screen and forget about over-the-top theatrics, the performers dodge artificiality. "Trigger Man" may be slow-paced from an action standpoint, but don't let that fool you; it's as ruthless and nerve-jangling as any motion picture from this year or last.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman