The Trigger Effect (1996)
Kyle MacLachlan (Matthew), Elisabeth Shue (Annie Kay), Dermot Mulroney (Joe), Michael Rooker (Gary),
“It was a cold bitter wind and it blew, and it blew. It blew through the trees and the little town too. It blew past the houses where the children were sleeping. It blew through the keyholes where peepers were peeping. It blew down the streets that were shrouded in slumber. Rattled the roofs right down to the lumber.” – Opening narration.
What is civilization? Is it a real thing or just a carefully maintained facade created by people who have enough creature comforts to not feel the need to kill and steal to get by? If you haven’t figured it out by context, The Trigger Effect believes it’s the second thing.
Our first substantial scene opens a shopping mall as various people come into conflict with one another in a long single shot that is just one bear attack from being overindulgent. As we wind through the people (the keen of eye will notice an adorably awkward young Greg Grunberg) from a man spilling coffee on a trendy German guy, who accidently stumbles between a hand-holding couple, to the boyfriend’s disrespected friend, to the girlfriend cutting in line at the snack bar and causing the next man in line to show up late for his movie snackless. The man complains to his friend loudly as the movie plays and this ignites a conflict between the two men and the married couple sitting in the row in front of them. It’s basically the movie Crash in five minutes.
What this sequence does is set a base tone for the movie. Well before the film has shown the audience any sort of catalyst for the end we’re already exposed to an uneasy feeling of violence lurking just below the surface. The events portrayed in this sequence are definitively mundane but there’s a tension to them that is palpable and only builds as the movie progresses. This sequence does an amazing job of conveying the film’s thesis statement; far better than the opening shot of two coyotes fighting over a carcass in the woods followed by one running a few feet out of the trees to reveal a power station.
The married couple are Matthew (Kyle MacLachlan) and Annie (Elisabeth Shue.) After Matt chickens out on confrontation with the two men at least three times and is made to look weak and cowardly for his wife they go home to find that their infant daughter has an ear infection. Matt calls the family doctor who tells them to monitor her temperature and informs them that he will phone in a prescription in the morning. Overnight the power goes out along with phones and radio. Slowly Matt’s comforting blanket of civilization is pulled away as he has to steal to help his sick daughter, his friend Joe (Dermot Mulroney) arrives and the two men clash over his wife, an incident with a burgler and a neighborhood meeting dissolves his trust in his neighbors, and a bad situation on a lonely highway comes to violent confrontation.
Spoilers for the movie are to follow so scroll down below the next picture if you’d rather not know what happens. The Trigger Effect is in many ways a series of vignettes, it’s building up our yuppie milquetoast of a hero, Matt, and slowly tearing down his sense of security. The first section, dealing with him getting antibiotics that he has no prescription for from the local pharmacy, is pretty light. It makes the world seem far more apocalyptic than it is just yet.
This slips into the second section where Joe shows up. Annie’s treatment of Joe, the way she treats him like an old boyfriend and asks him to spend the night coupled with Joe’s obvious interest in Annie puts a little fire under the kettle. Matt begins making offhand comments meant to cut Joe down and make him feel inferior. The scene of the two men purchasing a shotgun seems to be built more on a terse agreement to work together to protect Annie and the baby than two longtime friends standing together.
Then the burglar comes and Matt’s neighbor shoots the man in cold blood, and Joe stabs the burglar as he wrestles with him for a knife. I actually found myself thinking that Matt should grab the gun that the neighbor planted on the burglar’s body before the police pulled up and reminded me that society was still a thing at this point in the story. The mistrust Matt feels in his neighbor is only compounded by the selfish bickering of the rest of the neighborhood during their midnight meeting.
So it is that when our trio take off into the wilds to get away from the city to Annie’s mother’s house, the sense of paranoia has fully taken over Matt’s brain and that of every audience member as well. We see various things that are likely inconsequential but appear to be gravely important because Matt’s (and our) faith in humanity is lost. When they stop to siphon gas from a broken down car and find a man inside who only asks for a ride they mistrust him for the same reason we do, he’s being played by Michael Rooker!
Maybe Rooker’s character is out of line taking their vehicle and all their possessions but to be fair, Joe does pull a shotgun on him completely unprovoked. He may not shoot to kill but Joe is left badly wounded and it’s up to Matt to finally step up and do something. It’s a bit heavy handed that the man at the house he walks to happens to be one of the men who insulted Annie at the theater in the film’s opening but it’s likely to act as a balm to the egos of various audience members who were inherently mistrustful of him for being an athletic bald-headed black man with a nice car apparently living in a humble farm house.
The big climax of the film is also heavy handed and more than a bit too neat an ending for something so calculatedly cruel as this movie. Matt restores civilization, so to speak, by simply trusting in his fellow man. After a tense standoff with the man in the farmhouse, Matt simply informs him that he’s taking his car but will bring it back and that he can trust Matt because Matt is going to trust him. Matt then sets down his shotgun and slowly walks out to the car, allowing the man every chance to shoot him in the back. This inspires the man to trust Matt which ends up saving Joe’s life. We then go back to Matt’s home after the power has come on (no explanation is given how) as he sits on his step and stares at his neighbor who murdered the burglar, showing that while things are more or less back to normal that paranoia and Matt’s newfound understanding of man’s inhumanity to man will always stay with him.
I’ve always enjoyed Kyle MacLachlan but I’ve never much considered him a great actor. Having seen him in Blue Velvet, Dune, Showgirls, The Flintstones, Portlandia, and Twin Peaks I had written him off as a certain type of actor. It wasn’t that I though he was bad, he just had a style that I could describe as “No YOU’RE an alien trying to pass himself off as human with an over-the-top imitation of normal speech patterns!” I could write that off in his David Lynch stuff because that’s the description of every actor in a David Lynch creation (with the exception of Dennis Hopper) but that he kept that same used car salesman demeanor in other appearances convinced me that that was all he was capable of doing. Which is why I was genuinely surprised to find him giving the performance of his career here. Matthew doesn’t feel like a Kyle MacLachlan character, he feels real and MacLachlan disappears into the part in ways I previously never thought possible.
I’m not really familiar with Dermot Mulroney’s filmography but he’s really channeling Mel Gibson here. Joe exudes a quiet charming cool that at first comes across as the comedic relief best friend, then changes into the alpha-male rival, and then again to the grim protector. His chemistry with MacLachlan even when they’re feuding makes for the best dynamic in the film. For all intents and purposes they are the leads.
I don’t have anything bad to say about Elisabeth Shue’s performance but I have plenty to say about her character. Ever wonder why that Bechdel Test thing exists? Look no further than Annie. Annie isn’t so much a character as she is an environmental factor. She’s used to make Matthew look weak, to shore him up when he needs to be strong, she exists as something for Matt and Joe to fight over, to create jealousy in the eyes of both men and make Matt doubt the strength of his marriage. She throws the shotgun in the pool the night before the burglar breaks in because she is opposed to guns yet after Joe gets shot she has Matt show her how to shoot it as if to say ‘see what you get?!’ She’s a shrew, a coquette, a damsel, a motivator, but she never actually becomes a character. The biggest character moment for her is saying “sorry I was a bitch” after she needles Matt so much about getting the antibiotics (a situation that is well and truly out of his hands) that he breaks into the pharmacy and steals them. Annie is a waste.
The Trigger Effect is a touch heavy handed and creates more of a veneer of danger and the apocalyptic than anything tangible or real. It’s one of those movies that feels like an extra-long episode of the The Twilight Zone (other entries include The Book of Eli, The Vanishing on 7th Street, and Doomsday Reels favorite Miracle Mile.) This isn’t surprising since it was heavily based on the episode The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street. Still its lack of subtlety is forgivable, as is its syrupy sweet conclusion (this is an Amblin film after all) thanks to solid performances and some excellent directing and cinematography. The Trigger Effect isn’t likely to place in anyone’s top ten movies but it’s a tense and immensely enjoyable thriller and that is well worth discovering.
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“You know Myra, some people might think you’re cute. But me, I think you’re one very large baked potato. “
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