Here's the thing: Experiments don't always work out the way you plan. That's almost the point of experiments. Ti West's follow up to his critically lauded, but popularly panned The Roost was the rigorously experimental Trigger Man, a Dogme-influenced survival horror tale that bent West's brilliant grasp of sound design and the avant-garde time-cinema of Larry Gottheim to the task of creating a genre thriller about a trio of hunters who suddenly find themselves the target of a sniper. Trigger Man did West no favors with the horror fancy. Once again critics praised his flicks to high heavens, but fans gave the flick the bum's rush. Despite a notable 89% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the collective horror fancy gave the flick a weak four-star rating on imdb. Trigger Man practically begs for this sort of love/hate response. The film is not an unmitigated success. As an experimental filmmaker, West is at odds with his genre-loving fanboy. West wants to throw out all the rules of horror flicks, but he also wants to make taut, well-constructed fright engines. The result is a patchwork of commitments and compromises, some of which pay off and others of which overtax viewer patience. Still, I think the film is worth the serious attention of anybody who is curious about the future of horror cinema.
The plot of Trigger Man is almost absurdly simple. Three Manhattanites (from the Lower East Side, actually – the Pitt Street address of two of the hipsters is shot on location and readily recognizable) go on a hunting trip in a forested region of Delaware. They catch nothing, shoot at some litter beer bottles, and have a couple of cans of Yuengling. Then, without warning, one of the trio is shot in the head. After some running around, the invisible sniper bags a second hunter. Ultimately, it is up to the remaining hunter to wade into the sniper's nest – a massive, rusting industrial center slowly being reclaimed by the forest – and confront this invisible killer.
That's it. That's all there is to the story. There's an innocent jogger who gets pulled into to this inexplicable conflict and the corpse of a photographer that suggests the mysterious sniper has been at this manhunt for a day or two. But, essentially, these are just slight distractions included mainly to show how utterly ruthless a mousetrap this flick is. If a character appears in this film, they are either getting killed or shooting their way out.
If the plot is trimmed down, the characterization is less than minimal. West gives the viewers almost nothing to latch on to. Even by genre standards, the lack of exposition notable. We know that one of them is having troubles with his girl, though what the problem is never clear and a tense, but opaque half-a-phone-conversation we get near the beginning of the flick does nothing to illuminate the issue or connect it to the main plotline. We know even less about the other two hunters. One of them seems a bit more buttoned-down than the other two, and he has more experience in the woods. The killers are motiveless strangers, the victims just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, everything that happens to either group plays out with the pitiless logic of an accident. Few films have captured the unpalatable mundane horror of modern violence, the numbing pointlessness of a Columbine or a VA Tech shooting, with such a matter of fact impartiality. Despite the surface similarities – the forest setting, the ten-little-indians plotting, the "last" character convention - Trigger Man's relentless naturalism and its refusal to give the viewer even the slightest bit of forced exposition reveals the Romanticism that drives even the most "gritty" torture porn or slasher flick.
This is not to say that Trigger Man is taboo-breaking in its depiction of gore. By modern horror standards, it's body count is downright demure and the gore that makes it on screen is, though unflinching, hardly over the top. Any gorehound worth her salt should be able to rattle off the titles of a bakers dozen of more hardcore flicks than this one. What is novel is the sudden and strangely disinterested brutality of the film. Like the death dealing sniper who seems to be able to smite our protagonists from an untouchable perch, the film has a chillingly heartless lack of concern for either its victims or killers. The kills in this flick are neither endurance tests nor splatter drenched punchlines. Rather, they have a grim, understated feel that makes them oddly affectless.
Visually, the film is striking. Filmed with a high-def hand camera, the movie starts off with distracting Blair Witch-esque shakes and stuttering, jerky zooms. Happily, the most excessive unsteadiness fades when we get to the woods. There, West opts for long tracking shots, emphasizing the motion of his actors through each composition. This style is not only indebted to avante-garde films like Fog Line, but also the structuralist work of Michael Snow. This rigorous, clinical camera work is often supplemented with a soundtrack that relies heavily on the "found" sound of the film's location. Running brooks, the crunch of boots on gravel paths, and the incidental sounds of the forest are used brilliantly to enhance the naturalistic feel of the film while, at the same time, slyly playing with the dramatic and filmmaking conventions that viewers have become so habituated that they're mistaken for "realism" (a scene in which two characters' dialogue is submerged in the roar of river that runs between them is a standout). I'm torn about the music West adds to his film. After an indifferent needledrop that plays over the credits, West revisits the modern classical sound of his first film. Here, however, the dirge-like Reich-inspired serialist sound is more epic and grand, suggesting the influence of Philip Glass's music for the restored 1931 classic Dracula. The music is, itself, amazing. The problem is that it simply isn't as involving as the rich "natural" sound design West uses so well. I'm open to the possibility that the score is deliberately intrusive. Perhaps it was meant as a sort of Brechtean device, reminding us to keep our distance and reinforcing the clinical affectlessness of the visuals. Still, I feel the flick verged on taking the bold step of not using any music at all, a move that I think West could have pulled off.
Bringing so many experimental techniques into play, while exciting on a meta, does have its drawbacks. The films affectless approach to characterization might be an intentional defamiliarization technique, but it also serves as a real block to emotional involvement. I've seen critics complain that the victims in a certain film are unlikable; the victims in Trigger Man are unanythingable. The filmic approaches of Gottheim and Snow developed in response to a very specific vision. Their use here makes for a very, very, very slow film. The effect can sometimes be soporific rather than exciting. Finally, despite the bold choices West makes, there are other choices that feel like strange relapses into genre convention. Using genre conventions ain't no crime, but like the avant-garde techniques West uses, the conventions have evolved as part of a system. To use them after stripping away their context and their capacity to link emotionally with the viewer is to rob the conventions of their punch.
Ultimately, Trigger Man is one of the most interesting, but not most successful, horror flicks in recent years. West has the convictions to follow through with ideas, though it means that these ideas occasionally trump the need to deliver on the genre's traditional thrills. Still, the vast majority of those working in horror have the clear goal of delivering solid, dependable, effective, and traditional entertainments. Given the entertainment focus of the majority of the field, I think it is good for the health of the genre that there's room for committed experimenters like West.
Word on the street is that West's next two flicks, House of the Devil and Cabin Fever II, both got stuck in post-production hell and were cut up by producers. I hope Trigger Man isn't the last time we get to watch West experiment: triumphs, failures, and all.