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Darkness

A blackout scratches civilization's thin veneer

On the day I saw The Trigger Effect, David Koepp's disquieting thriller about survival and suspicion in the wake of a massive power blackout, I spent several hours cajoling, coaxing and sometimes even cursing as I tried to talk an unreliable laptop into working properly. (Meanwhile, half a continent away, impatient editors fumed.) So in the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit I was especially susceptible to Koepp's paranoid vision of a world in which most of us rely much too heavily on technology that we know little about.

But, then again, given the recent news of disruptive power outages in several western states, I doubt that I am alone in thinking The Trigger Effect may be the right movie at the right time in the right marketplace. Koepp, a screenwriter whose credits include Jurassic Park, The Paper and Mission: Impossible, has made an inspired choice of subject matter for his directorial debut. More to his credit, Koepp resisted what must have been a strong temptation to turn his high concept into a traditional action-adventure. Instead, he has made an intelligent and tightly focused drama that provokes thought as much as it inspires dread.

To a large degree, The Trigger Effect is very much in the tradition of The Twilight Zone. (In the production notes, Koepp cites a classic episode of the TV series, "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," as a major influence.) The premise is deceptively simple: Matt (Kyle MacLachlan) and Annie (Elisabeth Shue), two ordinary suburbanites, are pushed to extraordinary extremes during a massive power failure. At first, the inconveniences -- no electricity, no radio or TV, no telephone service -- are merely annoying. Gradually, however, the stakes are raised, the pressures are increased.

Matt and Annie have an infant daughter who develops a painful ear infection. They can't contact their family doctor to get the child's prescription refilled. And the local pharmacist refuses to refill the prescription without an okay from the doctor. There is a tense confrontation at the drug store, from which Matt, true to his nature, walks away. After a while, however, Matt is pushed over the edge by his child's plaintive cries -- and, just as important, his wife's angry recriminations. So this nice, respectable suburbanite who usually will do anything to avoid an unpleasant scene returns to the drug store, steals the medicine he needs, then runs away from the angry druggist and an armed security guard. Annie, it should be noted, is greatly impressed.

It's around this point that Koepp introduces his third major character: Joe (Dermot Mulroney), Matt's longtime friend, a construction worker who hasn't been by the house for a while. (The movie doesn't make a big deal about this, but it's clear that, as Matt has become more successful as a business executive, he has drifted further away from his blue-collar buddy.) Joe drops by to tell stories of looting and killings in a nearby city. "I heard a lot of different numbers," he says in regard to casualty reports. "They're not small numbers." Matt is happy to have Joe around to give advice when he shops for a gun to protect his home and family. Annie is happy to see Joe, too. Maybe, in Matt's eyes, a little too happy.

Even before the lights go out, The Trigger Effect taps into the free-floating rage that percolates throughout much of contemporary society. During the opening sequence, a four-minute Stedicam shot that glides in and around a shopping-mall multiplex, Koepp demonstrates the interconnectedness of incivility and resentment, action and reaction. What we have here, Koepp appears to be saying, is a society where each minor annoyance, every inadvertent slight, has a terrible ripple effect.

Kyle MacLachlan looks so unthreateningly average, so unremarkably wholesome, that he often is cast for ironic effect in mondo-bizzaro roles (The Hidden, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks). For once, however, his blandly handsome ordinariness is a vital part of the character he portrays. Matt is the kind of button-down, nonconfrontational guy who has trained himself to swallow his anger. He really would prefer to ignore the flashes of rudeness and open hostility that he, like most of us, encounters on a daily basis. Trouble is, when the system breaks down completely, and the old rules are suspended, even Matt can't find a hiding place that is safe enough.

Throughout the first half of The Trigger Effect, Matt comes across as a direct descendant of Dustin Hoffman's pacifist mathematician in Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs. Like Hoffman's David Sumner, an American who moves to rural England in the vain hope of escaping the violence of his homeland, Matt appears to have invested a great deal of effort into establishing a secure comfort zone for himself and his wife. Also like David, Matt is uneasy about his wife's playful flirtatiousness, and visibly pained by any suggestion that he is somehow less than a man for avoiding conflict.

But the similarities go only so far. Peckinpah pushed the passive David to a point where he had no choice other than spilling blood and taking lives to defend himself and his wife. In doing this, Peckinpah expressed his profound certainty that manhood requires -- no, demands -- violence.

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