1

Half Nelson offers an opportunity to marvel, once again, at the dazzling talent of Ryan Gosling for playing young men as believable as they are psychologically trip-wired. (source)

Though familiar with the noun, I have never seen "tripwire" used as a verb. Also I am not able to find the verb form in any dictionaries. Here the quoted usage is figurative, which is even rarer, if not the writer's own invention. Google Books searches return several hundreds results for the exact word "trip-wired", most of which though are about land mines or traps. What exactly does the word in the quoted line mean? "Wired", "geared", "equipped", "disposed", "inclined", or "triggered"?

3

I'm a native speaker, and I had to read that sentence a few times. It's a figurative use of that phrase, really just in line with what you found about physical traps. I wouldn't say it's common, but it's not unheard-of. I'm not familiar enough with Gosling's past work to be sure what's being referenced though.

To start off with a clear foundation: the author is saying that Ryan Gosling is very good at playing believable young male characters, that those characters tend to be "psychologically trip-wired", and that he's good at playing those characters that way.

If something is described as being figuratively trip-wired, it just means that any wrong move could cause some effect - usually a negative effect. If someone was described as being "emotionally trip-wired", I'd take it to mean that they don't have good control of their emotions, that the slightest mis-step by those around them could make them blow up in anger or break down in grief. Or both.

So if someone's psychologically trip-wired, I'd say it means their mental state is so fractured that they will snap back and forth between different states with very little provocation.

I'd say "trip-wired" isn't totally uncommon as a verb, and it is descriptive, but it's not really a standard turn-of-phrase.

1

A trip-wire is attached to an explosive. When someone trips on the wire, the explosive's mechanism is "tripped" and it detonates. An explosive wired in that manner is said to be "trip-wired".

An electrical surge can trip the circuit breaker.

So it's the past-participle of the verb wire used adjectivally as a subject modifier after the copula are. The meaning is figurative. The psyches of these characters are likened to an explosive and the slightest disturbance could cause them to "detonate".

It is a commonplace to use wired metaphorically when speaking of the "mechanisms" of the psyche, and so it's not much of a leap to trip-wired.

The word trip there indicates the manner in which the thing has been wired.

Compare:

Car thieves hot-wire vehicles and drive them away.

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