Triangle (2009)

This isn’t really a review so much as a “Wot I Think” – a quick run-through of some half-developed ideas and reasons why I liked or didn’t like this film. I’ve been arguing with a few friends about this movie and figured I may as well appropriate this argument for Great Justice, i.e. a post on my poor, neglected blog.

So, Jonathan McCalmont has been writing alternative ballots for the Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form category of the Hugo Awards (an award perhaps best known for the controversy it causes by being utterly uncontroversial). Triangle is one of the films he included on the list and one of those which I checked out for myself.

Triangle posterThe basic concept of Triangle is simple: a small yacht is capsized in an unusual storm and the few survivors are picked up by a cruise liner, the Aeolus, which appears to be uncrewed – until a masked figure begins picking them off with a shotgun. It’s not long before even weirder shit starts happening. Okay, from this point onwards there are going to be spoilers so if you want to check out the film free of preconceptions, stop reading now.

What makes Triangle unusual is its use of mechanics familiar to anyone who’s seen Groundhog Day or Primer – the sequences of events aboard the Aeolus, culminating in the murder of almost all of the survivors, continually repeat. Single mother Jess is the only survivor who appears to be an actor in these events rather than a recurrent victim, and as such she sets about trying to change events – to save the survivors, or to prevent them from boarding the ship in the first place.

Readers familiar with Greek philosophy will likely have already picked up on the name of the cruise liner and its significance. The film, sadly, is not quite so subtle, and one of its most clunking sequences is a scene where most of the survivors gather round and discuss the name of the ship and what it means. Of course, this is never mentioned again – it’s presumably only included to make things obvious for us thickies in the audience.

Anyway, overstated as it is the allusion itself is nice because:

1.) Aeolus was one of a triumvirate of god-figures.
2.) All three were the god of winds, and one was the son of Poseidon.
3.) Aeolus was the father of Sisyphus, who was condemned to spend his days pushing a boulder up a hill and by night seeing it roll back down again.
4.) Jess’s plight is Sisyphean in its inescapable futility and (what seems to be) endless repetition.
5.) Sisyphus has been seen by some scholars as personifying not only the rising and setting of the sun but also waves.
6.) Sisyphus was condemned to his plight by Zeus for his infractions of arrogance and hubris, specifically relating to a child.

Despite these points of confluence, however, the situation in which Jess finds herself is not directly analogous, rather it’s a variant on the concept, and I think that’s interesting. At first she appears blameless and somewhat damaged, struggling through life with her autistic son, but the film later undermines this initial perception of her as victim. In one of many uncanny moments in the film this Sisyphean figure, upon recognising her own crimes, murders and attempts to take her child away from herself – displacing the patriarchal aspects of the original myth of Sisyphus and reframing them as something else. Later she finds that she hasn’t broken the pattern at all, and instead she has made herself into a monster. There’s more to dig into here but I’m mostly mentioning this to highlight the fact that the film’s allusions had me thinking and making these connections at the same time as the plot itself keeping me glued to my seat.

What’s also interesting – and this is where the Primer comparison enters – is that what’s presented in the film is not a closed cycle. The bulk of what we see fits within the patterns we follow, but there are events that stand outside it – looping around the core events in a weird sort of elliptical orbit, if you will. It’s a conceit which cleverly indicates more than is shown, and in so doing highlights the doomed and fatalistic nature of the film.

Triangle screengrabThe film is also tense throughout and solidly-paced, with some wonderful moments: small incidents which were earlier foreshadowed, or scenes which bring to the fore with crushing brutality just how many times events have looped, and how despite her best efforts to break the cycle Jess really is just doing exactly what she’s done before.

The film was shot on a relatively low budget and as a result a lot of sets are re-used – which for me added to the film’s claustrophobic air – plus visually it’s nothing to write home about, with the exception of some of its clever setpieces. The characters, on the whole, aren’t particularly memorable – Jess is played perfectly by Melissa George but the rest of the cast don’t stick in the mind, with the slight exception of Heather (Emma Lung) who is killed off very early in the film (a lucky stroke, to be honest, as in suffering this fate she avoids a worse one).

There are also holes to be poked in the film’s central conceit, such as the question of why at the film’s outset does Jess appear to be suffering from amnesia (she has experienced a traumatic accident but her decision to return to the pattern of events indicates that she remembers what has come before, at least partially), but it’s easy to self-justify these moments. Perhaps the most obvious criticism of this as a horror film is that it’s not ‘scary’ – but it’s certainly horrifying thanks to the inherent dread of being unable to escape a truly awful fate.

All in all I thought Triangle was an excellent film – very tense with a sympathetic anti-heroine lead and cleverly written with plenty of (what should have been subtle) interesting mythic allusions.

5 Responses to “Triangle (2009)”
  1. Martin says:

    What’s also interesting – and this is where the Primer comparison enters – is that what’s presented in the film is not a closed cycle.

    I’m not sure about this and it is one of the things that confused me about the film. That is to say, I think the film is a closed cycle, one which lasts the whole of the film and re-boots when she falls asleep in the taxi (which explains that amnesia). Like Sisyphus, she is doomed to repeat this. The film talks about the Sisyphus fate being a not a punishment but a price for doing a deal with Death. As I read this, Jess crashed the car (in base level reality) on the way to the yacht, they are both dying and she asks Death to to spare him. This isn’t explicitly stated but I think it is valid.

    That does leave some problems. There is that brilliant, shocking scene when Jess follows that woman onto the top deck of the liner and finds it full of multiple instances of the woman’s corpse. This is then repeated with the crabs later. But this can’t happen in a closed loop. And if it wasn’t a close loop, then there would have to be many more layers than four we see but this can’t be because then we would see many more instnaces of Jess and the rest on the liner. If there is a coherent reading of this I’d like to hear it. Otherwise, I’m afraid I’m putting this down as a mistake on the part of the film-makers, prioritising the power of the scene over the piece as a whole.

  2. Shaun CG says:

    Hmm, you may be right. That said, here’s what led me to thinking there was at least one larger cycle:

    1.) The extremely bloodied and cold version of Jess that leads the couple into the room where she murders them – this is not a version of her that the, erm, protagonist-Jess experiences.

    2.) The scene where the woman dies amidst heaps of her own corpses. Around this time Jess looks down to the main deck and sees a version of herself hacking apart a third version; the former dressed normally, the latter in disguise. The second copy we see there is also outside the main loop; the third is too, and is either a point at which the cycle terminates, or a point at which one strand of it terminates (hard to guess at that really).

    I’m conscious of slipping on the clomping boots of nerdism in trying to argue this one way or another, but I did find it quite entertaining to try and disentangle all of this whilst watching what was otherwise a reasonably taut and entertaining thriller.

    I suspect that you may well be right, that the power of the scene was prioritised over everything else. Re. the taxi driver – yes, good point. I actually thought he was a very odd character and given what you mention about the “deal with Death”, I wonder if that taxi driver is supposed to represent Death. “You will be back, won’t you?” is something he asks when she gets out.

  3. Martin says:

    I’m by no means sure of my own reading; I’d missed some of those extra Jesses and it is definitely entertaining to argue these things out.

    I wonder if that taxi driver is supposed to represent Death.

    Yes, I think so. The way he is shot – looming over her, pale face, all in black – after the crash is heavy imbued with significance.

  4. Jonathan M says:

    I’m delighted to see this film get some proper discussion, Interestingly, though I have now seen Triangle twice, I never felt the need to try and put it in some kind of order as my cinematic reference point was Polansky’s The Tenant, which makes absolutely no sense.

    I think that it is a partially closed loop but we do not see all of said loop. I think that the Jess we meet at the beginning of the film is not the first Jess to go through the system or the last. I also think that, because each iteration of the loop allows a certain amount of freedom, there are different versions of Jess, some more sympathetic than others.

    For example, there are clearly crazy Jesses but I think there’s also a drunk and or high Jess who is an unfit mother. That’s the version that is hinted at initially when she first meets up with the rest of the group. The obvious way of reading those first scenes is that Jess is in shock but I think the idea of Jess having different personalities suggests interesting things about the various loops.

  5. Shaun CG says:

    Didn’t mean to ignore you Jonathan, I’ve had a busy week!

    Interesting that we have such different reference points for approaching the film – and I suspect that yours may actually fit better, at least insofar as authorial intent is concerned. I don’t believe Triangle was plotted with as much care and crazy as Primer was. I suppose the ambiguity is half the fun but it lacks tightness.

    I’m not so sure about there being different Jesses – I saw it more as the same Jess at different points along a line – but I concede that there would have to be at least a certain number of them for the not-entirely-closed-loop to work. The crazy murderess Jess I saw as someone who was conscious of how many times she’d passed through this loop and had been driven half-insane by the repeated deaths of her son (not to mention the repeated deaths of her friends) and was psychopathically intent on breaking that one element of the chain. The bad mother, well, I didn’t read anything more into that than Jess was lashing out at her autistic child for how difficult her life was – reprehensible, certainly, but also understandable for a minimum-wage single mother with an autistic child in the USA.

    Completely agree btw that when we join the story at the start of the film it is not the first loop – in fact it would be impossible for that to be the case given the huge number of doppelganger corpses and dropped lockets observed by ‘our’ Jess as the film goes on.