Notable Festivals: South By Southwest
Director Ti West enjoyed the modest success of his feature debut THE ROOST (2005), but quickly found himself languishing back in the same obscurity as his peers while he was trying to get his next project off the ground. After about two years, West approached his executive producer and mentor Larry Fessenden with an idea for a film that he could shoot down and dirty with little money, about a group of friends hunted by a sniper in the woods. He pitched it as a subversion of the “hunters become the hunted” subgenre, but made in such a realistic way that the banality of key moments could go by without audiences barely registering. West based his idea off a purportedly true story (I call bullshit), and convinced Fessenden to finance and produce the film. With $10,000 in hand and seven days to shoot, West ventured once again into the woods of Delaware and shot his second feature, TRIGGER MAN (2007).
The story concerns three old friends who get together and head out of Manhattan for a weekend hunting trips in the woods. We can tell they’re old friends because they’re so stylistically different from each other that the only way they’d be friends is if they went way, way back. Sean (THE ROOST’s Sean Reid) is about to get married and dresses like he just scored a shopping spree from Abercrombie & Fitch. His friends, Reggie (Reggie Cunningham) and Ray (Ray Sullivan) are still in an adolescent, grungy, punk phase and lead seemingly aimless lives focused on getting drunk, stoned, and laid. What promises to be a relaxing weekend of camping and hunting gives way to terror when the trio is attacked by an unseen sniper that’s been relentlessly stalking them.
Keeping true to his minimalist approach, West keeps his cast at a bare minimum, having them use their actual names as their character names. He once again directs Reid, who previously played the stubborn stoner in THE ROOST, and gives him a character in TRIGGER MAN that’s the polar opposite. The character of Sean, as played by Reid, is rich, well-groomed/dressed, and is clearly leaving his two old friends behind as he climbs the social ladder of life. This adds a degree of simmering tension with Cunningham and Sullivan, the two greasy punk types. Cunningham emerges as the unlikely protagonist of TRIGGER MAN, making for one of the more unconventional leads in recent memory (what with his unpleasant mullet and, frankly, thuggish countenance). I took this as another sign of West’s unfettered bravery and confidence in his craft despite his early age. The fact that we come to care about this conventionally un-savory character by the end is perhaps West’s most substantial accomplishment in the entire film. And like THE ROOST, Fessenden himself appears in a cameo at the very end as the sniper’s henchman who ends up on the wrong side of Reggie’s gun barrel.
What’s immediately apparent upon watching TRIGGER MAN is how starkly different it looks compared to THE ROOST– so much so that one could be forgiven for thinking West made the former first as a shoestring feature long before his 2005 breakout. West slimmed down his crew considerably by also acting as the Director Of Photography and shooting on digital video with primarily natural lighting. He opts for an untreated, unfiltered, inherently “video” aesthetic, letting the natural earth tones of his location dominate his muddy color palette. This allows the bright orange of hunting vests and the visceral crimson of gore to really pop out and jar the audience. West shoots almost entirely handheld, reveling in slow, quiet stretches of observational camerawork that’s only broken by in-camera rack zooms. The zooms themselves have no motivation or logic behind it, other than making the camera itself a living, breathing participant. It also echoes the visual sensation of acquiring a target through a sniper scope. West chose the forested Delaware location because he grew up in the area, and could secure a singular park permit to shoot anywhere he pleased, thus wringing as much production value as he could out of the concept.
Jeff Grace once again collaborates with West to create the score, crafting an ominous, pulsing energy that propels his ambient soundscapes. It’s an effective and perfectly serviceable score, but nothing truly stand-out. West also peppers in several underground hardcore songs for a punkish vibe that reflects the musical sensibilities of his protagonists. The unglamorous, amateur nature of West’s video aesthetic is bolstered by Graham Reznick’s accomplished sound design, proving the old age that sound is instrumental in the audience’s perception of a film. If it sounds good, they’re much more adept to watch something that may not be quite up to par, visually.
West’s aesthetic continues to be influenced by the heyday of 1980’s VHS chillers. While utilizing the relatively new medium of video to shoot TRIGGER MAN, his dedication to the old-fashioned ways is reflected in, among other things, the yellow, vintage font of his titles. The action of the story occurs around a singular structure, which is another recurring trope within West’s filmography. In THE ROOST, it was an abandoned barn, and in TRIGGER MAN it manifests as an abandoned factory in the middle of the woods. Really, the main deviation from West’s style is his decision to shoot on video, as he has shown himself to be a staunch advocate for film-based acquisition as his career has progressed.
West’s second feature turns out to be a taut, surprisingly entertaining little thriller. TRIGGER MAN has a few flaws in logic indicative of a young filmmaker at the helm, like the main character completely not once calling for help despite the working cell phone in his pocket. Such flaws only amount to minor quibbles, and ultimately the film premiered to a warm reception at South by Southwest, further reinforcing West’s reputation as a director of finely-crafted, old-fashioned thrillers. Soon enough, West found himself in the company of like-minded filmmakers in the SXSW social circle, like mumblecore king Joe Swanberg and splatter master Eli Roth. But it was his friendship with Roth specifically that would lead to his next project—and his first major studio film.
TRIGGER MAN is currently available on standard definition DVD via Kino International.
Produced by: Larry Fessenden, Peter Phok, Ti West
Written by: Ti West
Director of Photography: Ti West
Editor: Ti West
Sound Design: Graham Reznick
Music: Jeff Grace