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Trigger Warning

Beginning with a wonky opening chase sequence, “Trigger Warning” lacks urgency. Beginning in Syria’s Badiyat al-Sham Desert, an elite squad led by Parker (Jessica Alba) zip after potential terrorists in CGI trucks that look like Lego vehicles riding across the sand. Parker’s jeep, a jalopy on a soundstage, rocks about as she fires from its window. This isn’t a long sequence, ending anticlimactically with a garishly shot crash of a Syrian’s truck. Its purpose, other than being a banal cold open, is to bloodily dispense with Brown people while portraying Parker as a by-the-book killer—she stops a colleague from executing the MENA prisoners. 

Indonesian director Mouly Surya’s “Trigger Warning” arose from a screenplay from three scribes: John Brancato, Josh Olson, and Halley Wegryn Gross—and it feels like it. No sooner than that chase sequence, this rural revenge thriller becomes vague. Parker receives an urgent call from Jesse (Mark Webber), the town sheriff, who informs Parker of her father’s sudden death in a mine collapse. She races home to discover a possible suicide note from him and to take over the bar he left. Despite these details, the facts aren’t adding up for Parker. Her father was a former Green Beret, yet the mining accident was supposedly caused by him losing the pin to a grenade. There are also vicious weapons—machine guns, RPGs, and grenades—mysteriously making their way into the area. 

“Trigger Warning” is a self-serious, brooding film without the wherewithal to know how righteously dumb it could be if it committed to the bit. Or, at least, the expertise to elevate it to the suspenseful level it so desperately aims to reach. 

I can personally take a threadbare script—give me light backstories and basic character motivations any day. What I can’t take is an erratic script. The discrepancies spring up often in “Trigger Warning,” most often occurring with the Shaw family. After some investigating, Parker discovers footage her father took with hidden cameras of Elvis Shaw (Jake Weary) making illegal arms deals with domestic terrorists. We take a long roundabout way toward Elvis’ father Senator Swan (Anthony Michael Hall), who’s running for re-election, and Elvis’ brother Jesse’s involvement. Nothing about them makes much sense. How is Elvis testing heavy duty arms by an army base? Why is Senator Swan so interested in Parker’s endorsement? But most all, why are we supposed to be rooting for Parker? The vagueness of her background is often played for laughs. But truly, I want to know the basics of why anyone should find empathy with a shadowy killer like Parker.

It’s clear that Surya is often fighting against the limitations of her budget and her script. Her previous feature, “Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts,” a rural Indonesian thriller, premiered at Cannes and was selected as Indonesia’s submission for the Academy Awards. She uses that experience well here. Apart from the rickety VFX-heavy scenes, Surya conjures some handsomely mounted shots: the mountainous surroundings, dusty roads, and wooden interiors are warmly captured. Where the action sequences, big shootouts across this small town, fall short, the character-driven sequences, scenes in worn bars and quaint homes, are wonderfully understated.  

Yet, the rural region in which this film takes place is morbidly underwritten. There is the Latinx component that somewhat bobs to the surface, one where a predominately Latinx town is governed by a white family. There is also the dead-end Conservative politics ruling the land that has its moments, like Jesse being caught between loyalty to his family and Parker. These are interesting ideas in the periphery that, with greater room to breathe, could provide some thematic importance. Here, they’re left dangling. 

The minimal breathing also translates to the hand-to-hand combat scenes. Scenes that should go on for far longer—such as Parker infiltrating the Swan’s compound—are cut far too short, killing the momentum before it can build. The choreography also lacks snap (there is a glaring difference between Alba being on screen and her far more accomplished stunt double). Alba isn’t so much an unstoppable action star, but an underwhelming presence without the precision or the time to build out what could be a memorable recurring character. 

It’s difficult to call “Trigger Warning” a terrible film, even with fangless action and mind numbingly inconsistent script. There are far, far worse films—especially of the action-thriller variety. But should not being the worst be good enough? Netflix is often trying to walk that line with its glut of revenge-type films, and this one does it a tad better than most. It is moderately better; however, it isn’t enough to make “Trigger Warning” stand out from the rest of the streamer’s dregs.  

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at RogerEbert.com. Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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Film Credits

Trigger Warning movie poster

Trigger Warning (2024)

Rated R

86 minutes

Cast

Jessica Alba as Parker

Anthony Michael Hall as Ezekiel Swann

Tone Bell as Spider

Mark Webber as Jesse Swann

Jake Weary as Elvis Swann

Director

Writer

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