What an exciting time we had in the 90s when it came to the emergence of what was called “The New Queer Cinema”. Films such as Todd Haynes’ Poison, Gregg Araki’s The Living End, Ana Kokkinos’ Head On, or the late great and dearly missed Richard Glatzer’s debut with Grief, to name a few, had a scrappy, DIY feel yet with a confident point of view. These films had dark edges and felt entirely devoid of the fluffy “gays are the world’s party clowns” vibe, and I loved them for that.
Christopher Bradley, making his feature writing/directing debut with The Trigger (love the cool dime store novel poster), knows a thing or two about that era, having starred in the seminal Leather Jacket Love Story back in 1998. His film takes us back to that era with the story of a two-weeks sober young hustler trying to build a new life for himself after getting sprung from prison and encountering a nonstop barrage of obstacles. Slade Pearce plays Erik, a smudgy-eyed nineteen year old twink who, when we first meet him, hitches a ride from a driver who wants to pay him for sex. Instead of following through, he robs the guy of his cash, belongings and Chekhov’s gun. Eventually, Erik makes it back to his small Arizona town, desperate for a place to stay, a job, and to rekindle his romance with Heather (Julia Ann Severance), his ex-girlfriend. As simple as that may sound, Erik just can’t catch a break. His former pimp, Dolores (Robyne Richards) won’t help him and her drug dealer partner Bennie (Joe Ricci) suspects Erik got an early parole by ratting him out to the police. Then there’s Tommy (Daniel Kapinga), one of Erik’s johns, who carries a torch for the young man. Tommy thinks Erik will fall in love with him if he sets him up with a job and an apartment. What could go wrong?
With this film, Bradley has not chosen to take the easy way out, first by featuring a main character who constantly lies to everyone and can barely muster to turn on the charm when needed. Pearce has some chilling moments when trying to crack a smile or pretend he’s into Tommy. He’s not unsympathetic, as anyone who tries to turn things around for themselves can’t help but feel relatable, but he’s also not oozing the type of charisma you would see in lighter versions of this tale. Bradley wants us to know the vicious cycle of post-incarceration makes it nearly impossible to walk a straight and narrow path. It’s no wonder Erik quickly falls back into old habits.
Now don’t get me wrong, The Trigger is far from perfect. Obviously made on a shoestring budget, it clearly lacks the big toys like cranes and dollies which would have given the film a less stodgy presentation. It’s not a glossy story, however, so I went with its clunky tone and sometimes awkward time jumps. Furthermore, the script feels loaded with too many on-the-nose conversations when visually showing us these dynamics would have sufficed.
Tommy’s actions makes him into perhaps the most naive yet creepy gay guy I’ve seen onscreen in ages, but guys like him exist and Bradley seems unafraid to present him. Moreover, Kapinga manages to make us believe in his romantic yet misguided fantasies. As a story, we pretty much watch Erik flit from one house to another, getting in over his head with each trip. Luckily, all of the pieces do fit together, including a mysterious flashback which may hold the key to Erik’s many faults. Bradley puts a new wrinkle on an age-old redemption story with its unexpected conclusion.
Although some of the performances play out more one-note than necessary, the two main women, Richards and Severance, bring compelling, conflicting emotions to the table. Severance in particular walks a nice tightrope between sullen and sweet, drawing my attention to her with every scene. When I look back on the indie queer films from 20-30 years ago, many had similar issues of unpolished performances and bizarre blocking. In retrospect, it may have been part of their appeal. If you’ve already burned through every VHS copy of those New Queer Cinema titles, then stream The Trigger for an antidote to the shiny, happy gay movies flooding your LGBT-Queue (see what I did there?).
Glenn Gaylord’s 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE: The Trigger gets a 30 out of 50. Erik may have a background as a hustler, but the film makes it clear he’s strictly gay for pay. It’s decidedly a straight story in a slightly twisted gay milieu.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
The Trigger is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.