Triangle (2009)

Triangle first published by Film4

On-stage with writer/director Christopher Smith (Creep, Severance) at the Film4 FrightFest 2009 to introduce the world premiere of Triangle, lead actress Melissa George seemed to commit the near-criminal faux pas of revealing a major spoiler. In fact this apparent clanger, while certainly not a red herring, did not and could not undermine in any serious way the experience of viewing Triangle – for when a film is as as dizzyingly complex, as impenetrably labyrinthine and as diabolically ambiguous as this, spoilers just do not apply (although they will still be avoided in this review). Seeing Triangle once, or indeed several times, will not provide some magical solution to the unfolding mystery – but it will suggest a number of possible routes through its misty narrative, all of which you may well be traveling for days afterwards. Yes, this is a film that haunts the mind, and no single word or phrase can give the whole game away.

When Jess (George) is invited to join Greg (Michael Dorman) and some friends for a day trip on a yacht (called the Triangle), it seems a welcome opportunity to escape, however briefly, the constant stresses of being single mother to a young autistic boy (Joshua McIvor). The boat, however, is overturned in a flash storm, and the pleasure-seekers find themselves scrambling aboard a giant ocean vessel (the Aeolus) that has emerged out of the fog. Although one of the party does catch a glimpse of a person on the upper decks, the vast, luxuriously appointed ship appears to be otherwise deserted – but then a masked figure starts taking out the lost travelers one by one, as a distraught, desperate Jess begins (or at least continues) to chase her own tail, in flight from, and pursuit of, a fate that seemingly cannot be eluded.

The key effect of Triangle is disorientation, as we are made to feel as lost, confused and hopeless as Jess herself in her vain struggle against the darker aspects of her own nature. In keeping with the film’s shape-based title, Smith achieves this disorientation through the twisted geometry of a narrative which, though certainly looping back on itself, is less a circle than a Möbian strip, full of puzzle and paradox. And – again in keeping with the title – the film presents viewers with three aspects, one psychological, one supernatural, one mythical, and leaves it entirely uncertain from which side the story is best viewed. 

“I feel like I know this place, I recognise these corridors,” comments Jess as she wanders the empty halls of the Aeolus (named for the legendary god of winds whose son, Sisyphus, was famously condemned to an infernal punishment of eternally repeating effort), “I’m having a déjà vu every time I turn a corner.”  If Jess is describing a well-known uncanny trick of the mind, we feel it too, confronted not only with scenes playing themselves out time and time again from (impossibly) different perspectives, but also with recognisable references to countless other films. For Smith sprinkles his narrative with intertextual breadcrumbs that overtly evoke Dead Calm, Adrift, Ghost Ship, The Shining, TimeCrimes, Carnival of Souls – and even Pirates of the Carribean: At World’s End (with its inverted boats, purgatorial crabs and multiple Sparrows). 

In such an allusive terrain, viewers may well feel that they too ‘know this place’, but as things shift from tempestuous travelogue to maritime slasher to claustrophobic psychodrama, the film limns a brain-bending enigma, trapping us all at once in an unraveling mind, in a never-ending twilight zone – and in the prisonhouse of cinema itself. The circle of this infuriatingly nightmarish narrative seems impossible to square, making it like Alain Resnais’ masterpiece Last Year In Marienbad (1961), only set (mostly) on a boat, in colour – and with a lot of blood. The other characters are all reasonably disposable, but as Jess, Melissa George gives the performance of her life, anchoring everything to her increasingly horrified journey into self-knowledge. It is without question Smith’s most mature film to date, and one of the best (and most bewildering) genre films of 2009. 

Verdict: Three’s the charm with Chris Smith’s third feature, where a thrilling, genre-savvy surface conceals untold psychological depths. 

© Anton Bitel