Directed by: Ti West
Three old pals -- Sean, Ray & Reggie -- get together for a weekend deer hunting trip to re-connect and get away from the city. The recently engaged Sean is the most experienced, though not overly gun savvy, having organized the excursion by borrowing firearms and demonstrating proper rifle techniques to his friends. A painfully monotonous day unfolds as the inexperienced trio find nothing to shoot at other than big tree trunks and a littered beer bottle. Their hunt abruptly kickstarts when an unseen assailant splatters Sean's brain chunks across the foliage with a fatal burst of gunfire.
As the shooter sets his sights on Ray and Reggie, the remaining duo frantically scramble for cover and flee through the woods. After the shooting seems to stop, Ray and Reggie devise a plan to carefully traverse their woodland surroundings with a route that should allow them to safely escape Sean's grisly fate. Unfortunately, the path to safety is short-lived as they quickly navigate themselves right back under the crosshairs of this mysterious shooter. With few options, Reggie ceases the escape attempts and turns his eye toward tracking down this assassin. Reggie eventually pinpoints the shooter's location to a sprawl of dilapidated factory buildings on the far side of a river bordering the treeline and must locate this deadly trigger man amidst deserted structures and shadows before he's the next one gunned down.
The most important thing to know about Trigger Man is that this is a Ti West film. If you're not familiar with the phrase "Ti West film" then it's probably best to educate yourself to some degree before watching Trigger Man or any other selections from his filmography (sans Cabin Fever II, a film West has since renounced). The Ti West crib notes are primarily a feature made high on atmosphere, slow on pace, low on budget and thin on story.
Admittedly, I wasn't aware of this when I viewed The Roost, Ti West's debut film, upon its release. The Roost didn't work at all for me, causing me to write-off Trigger Man entirely. I may not have ever given it a chance if not for West's far superior House of the Devil, which could not be ignored at a certain point due to an abundance of strong reviews and festival buzz. House of the Devil is the pinnacle of West's work and epitomizes his trademarks and motifs to their fullest and most satisfying, and it left me wondering if perhaps starting with House of the Devil is the best entry point for delving into the director's catalogue.
Trigger Man checks all the Ti West boxes, starting with an extremely low budget. The film was reportedly shot over 7 days for a meager $10,000 budget. When considering this, West's accomplishment is much more impressive and some of the hamstrung elements are a little more easily forgiven. This scant budget plays into West's strength for creating atmosphere. West crafts an uneasy atmosphere by shooting everything with a documental feel. It's a bold choice given that this is not a found footage film or a faux documentary. By employing handheld techniques, it creates a natural realism and the sense that someone unbeknownst to our trio is stalking them just out of sight. Being familiar with West's aesthetic, this visual tactic not only aided in pulling me through the first act sludge, but it allowed me to plug into the threatening voyeurism and forthcoming dread awaiting them.
As for the pacing, Trigger Man is a painfully slow burn -- I'm talking tortoise slow with pilot light simmer. If you enjoy scenes of people walking in the woods, this film will give Lord of the Rings a run for the money in that department. I will say that the terribly slow pace and uneventfulness in this section of the film contributes to the harsh boredom of deer hunting; the waiting for hours on end with merely a hope to fire off some shots at a live target. It doesn't necessarily help matters that West avoids utilizing this time to make his characters likable. Instead, he focuses on making them relatable through this monotony and with slight character beats that nod to relationship issues with significant others as well as awkwardness between old friends that have grown apart. This approach does payoff eventually if you can stick with the film (or stay awake) until the action finally breaks loose probably more than halfway through the runtime.
Once the shooting starts, it is a series of effective jolts that serve as little injections of terror. I suppose West's intent was to almost lull the viewer asleep only to snap them awake with a hard slap across the chops. This suddenness manufactures a similar shock and disorientation that abruptly strikes Ray and Reggie, equally unprepared and unsure of the surroundings. As they run and hide, the documentary shots pay dividends in two-folded fashion; first, you're never certain if these shots are from the killer's P.O.V, meaning all of Reggie or Ray's efforts to conceal and defend themselves are virtually useless even with guns in their hands, and second, the visuals are composed in such a ride-along manner that it essentially places the viewer in-step with the characters as if actually inserted into the fray. These traits thicken the tension underlying simple evasion scenes and plotting beats, always milking the hair-raising sensation of walking head-long into a bullet. And while there's not a lot of gore, the damage on display is ghastly enough that you definitely fear the trigger squeeze.
Now, is the back-half of the film worth waiting for? That's hard to gauge and ultimately depends on your patience and appreciation of simplicity. For me, it was just enough to hang in there. As noted, you have to go into this film knowing that the first half is even more sluggish than the proverbial slow burn. I would compare Trigger Man's slow burn to a gas explosion -- it's simple to leave the gas on, but you're gonna have to wait a long while to see something happen, but when it does? You'll get an explosion.
Make or Break scene - Easily the scene that makes Trigger Man is when Sean relieves himself atop a high cliff and then has his skull blown to smithereens before finishing. This makes the film because you're at the point where something needs to happen and if it doesn't then you can't stick with the film any further. Fortunately, West delivers the needed incentive with a bit of nice trickery by focusing the camera on Reggie in mid-conversation and caught off-guard as a gun-pop resounds then blood splashes his face. I also enjoyed the touch of dark humor in the way Sean was caught with his pants down literally when killed.
MVT - Ti West. The film hinges on Ti West implementing his aesthetic successfully and he accomplished that for me. Granted, the finished product isn't great and it's probably a little short of being good, but it is watchable and moderately engaging once the tension breaks. Moreover, I think a number of other indie directors would've struggled to churn out a product as polished and as nerve-racking if hampered by the same limitations.
Score - 6.5/10