"The Trigger Effect" begins with a riveting, unsettling sequence that's like a dissection of social pathology. Wordlessly, it watches a game of hostility tag, a process by which a single accidental jostle is alchemized into angst and is passed along from person to person, contaminating each of them with generalized anger, in a shopping mall.
That guns and blades don't come out, that a race riot, a domestic meltdown, a collapse of civilization doesn't immediately ensue seems merely the most fragile of coincidences and the least likely of outcomes: That's how close to the edge, the movie seems to be saying, we really live.
Unfortunately, nothing else in the film is quite as powerful or compelling as that examination of the theory and practice of random nastiness. Once the movie settles down to story, it turns out to play like an extended "Twilight Zone" episode that merely reiterates the theme of the first few minutes: that man is fundamentally a beast and he must struggle endlessly against his own worst instincts and that each victory over those instincts is merely provisional.
It's a kind of "Lord of the Flies" riff, blown out into the comfy 'burbs. Several of the randomly nasty people we've seen in the opening sequence interact in the caldron of an extended and mysterious power outage, which takes them to the very edge. Guns do come out, as do blades, a race riot and a domestic meltdown, and the collapse of civilization seems imminent.
The focus is on mild-mannered Kyle MacLachlan, a prosperous suburban white-collar worker, attuned to the world being arranged to his specifications.
He lives with his wife, Elisabeth Shue (in a throwaway performance hardly on par with her work in "Leaving Las Vegas"), in a white clapboard house with a pool, on Beaver Cleaver's beautiful street, with only the smallest imperfections: The baby cries at night, and maybe his sex life isn't as hot as it once was, and the remodeling project in the kitchen is taking much too long. Life is tough, except that it's not.
Then one night, the power vanishes. It's as if a nuclear war has taken out the center city: no news, no radio, no telephone, no computers, almost no police, nothing but the sudden reality of having to cope for yourself. The thin veneer of what is called "society" has been peeled away. (Indeed, the movie is also reminiscent of the TV mini-series "The Day After.")
First priority: medicine for the baby's earache which, owing to a computer crash and a pharmacist's temper, he ends up stealing, he a man who's never broken rule one.
Second priority: a gun, in spite of his wife's fear and loathing of such objects. A nice $180 Winchester pump gun in exchange for a $600 Rolex.
Third priority: bond with another male who under these circumstances will probably be more efficient. This is Dermot Mulroney, a working class pal who's got more physical authority. Alas, that authority directly translates, in dire circumstances, into sexual attractiveness, and soon there's a very tense triangle in the dark house at the end of the street.
The movie proceeds to document the slow degeneration of society into ever-smaller tribal units under the stress of the situation. First it's Our Neighborhood against Outsiders, then it's Our House against Outsiders and finally it's just Us against Them, and Me against You, and "you" are everybody.
But writer-director David Koepp doesn't really develop a single plot line, a continuously escalating sense of jeopardy. Instead, the movie comes to feel extremely episodic, particularly in the way it picks up and discards themes -- like the jealous tension between MacLachlan, Mulroney and Shue, which ultimately comes to nothing, as does a nasty situation when an armed neighbor shoots a thief who was brandishing a knife at MacLachlan, then plants a gun in the corpse's hand.
A final twist has the three stars heading out to Colorado for an adventure on the road that seems to have no logical support and only moves the movie awkwardly into "Mad Max" territory.
Ultimately, "The Trigger Effect" reaches the banality of a civics lesson when it instructs us, at the end, that if we are our own worst enemy, we still have the capacity to be our own best friend.
It ends in a sugary salute to brotherhood that seems to deny all that came before it, after the Hollywood fashion of sticking an upbeat ending on everything. Would that life were so pretty.
L Starring Kyle MacLachian, Elisabeth Shue and Dermot Mulroney
Directed by David Koepp
Released by Gramercy
Pub Date: 8/30/96