Hunters become the hunted in Ti West’s smartly compact and radical survival thriller, “Trigger Man.” As distinct from his smart horror debut, “The Roost,” as it surely is from his in-the-works studio debut, “Cabin Fever 2,” West’s pic grafts anti-narrative cinema conventions — sustained real-time shooting and disdain for overt plot — onto an action-adventure template. Results are so pared to the bone that the swift ending comes as a shock, and then, in retrospect, as just the right exit. Fine fest tour should broaden to non-U.S. shores, while crafty distribs could find B.O. targets in specialized hunts and focused vid volleys.
After a portentous opening shot of the New York skyline, Gotham buddies Reggie (Reggie Cunningham), Ray (Ray Sullivan) and Sean (Sean Reid) pile into an SUV for a hunting trip. Right off the bat, the film is invested less in Reggie’s apparent problems with a needy (off-screen) g.f. than the sheer ecstasy of leaving the city behind for the sun-dappled splendors and vast silences of the forest.
West pointedly observes that the guys aren’t exactly Thoreaus when it comes to venturing into nature; when they’re not teasing Reggie about being “pussy-whipped,” they’re itching to break out the brews. Sean has organized the day, and firmly instructs them on the proper use of their bolt-action rifles, complete with scopes. This alone conveys the queasy sense that Reggie and Ray are going out in the woods with no real idea what they’re doing.
“Trigger Man” risks everything in the first 30 minutes — including losing impatient auds altogether — by rightly insisting on plunging the viewer into the experience of hunting, which is 99% walking and waiting and keeping absolutely silent, and perhaps 1% action. Idle minds may conclude they’re watching some “Blair Witch”-y redo or a “Dudes Do Deliverance” revision, but that would miss the pic’s marvelous sense of time and space, seemingly empty of purpose yet steadily building tension.
Reggie gets some newbie luck by eyeing a deer, but becomes distracted, and the rest of the day (marked by time markings in a variation on the device in “The Shining”) appears to be an elaborate excuse for drinking. Out of nowhere, as Sean is preparing to urinate at the edge of a cliff, he’s killed by a bullet. Reggie and Ray dash away, but soon, at a creek bed, Ray is gunned down by a single head shot.
Reggie realizes he’s being targeted by a sharpshooter, likely stationed at a nearby abandoned factory. Though his decision to investigate further may seem like a death wish, it also feels like the act of a city guy desperate to avenge his friends’ murders.
After a remarkable sequence involving a lone female jogger, Reggie stalks the cavernous factory site, suggesting that “Trigger Man” could easily spin off a vidgame. Contrast between the spooky industrial setting and the sylvan woods surrounding it is stunning, though not as stunning as the ending, which comes upon Reggie and auds with the rude closure life sometimes provides.
Nonpro thesps work naturally in front of West’s camera, with none of them straining for theatrics. In what’s starting to become a ghoulish inside joke for West’s films, his mentor and key backer — American indie horror specialist Larry Fessenden — is killed off, just as he was in a bit part in “The Roost.”
West, operating with a tiny crew, covers Gotham, the woods and the factory with a sometimes insanely frenetic camera that goes overboard on herky-jerky moves and stuttering zooms. Pic doesn’t need such touches, but the long patches of silence tend to balance it out. Composer Jeff Grace comes up with one of the eeriest scores in recent genre pics.