Triangle (2009)

Triangle first published by Sight & Sound, Nov 2009

Review: “He cheated Death – no, he made a promise to Death that he didn’t keep. I studied it, but I can’t remember it.” 

Standing before a painting of the Greek god of winds Aeolus, aboard an ocean liner bearing the same name, Sally (Rachael Carpani) tries to recall the story of Aeolus’ son, Sisyphus, and his underworld punishment of futile, endlessly repeating effort. The myth of Sisyphus is key to Triangle, not only because Christopher Smith’s third feature depicts a fallen character condemned to living an infinitely recurring nightmare, but also because it boasts a narrative so dizzyingly labyrinthine and persistently ambiguous that one can only imagine the Sisyphean labour required of writer/director Smith (not to mention editor Stuart Gazzard) to make all its impenetrable convolutions seem so watertight in the way they hang together.  

When we first meet Jess (Melissa George), she is already conflicted, caught in a trap that she longs to escape in spite of herself. A single mother whose whole “world” revolves around maintaining a repetitive routine for her autistic son Tommy (Joshua McIvor), she is clearly taking a momentous step in agreeing to join Greg (Michael Dorman) for a date on his yacht the Triangle – but then, when a destructive storm sends the boating party clambering for refuge aboard the mysteriously abandoned Aeolus, Triangle shifts from elliptical drama to sea-borne slasher as a masked assailant begins picking off Jess’ companions off one by one, and Jess finds herself trapped in a new (yet oddly familiar) hell of insidious by-numbers repetition. 

If the empty, haunted corridors of the oldworld Aeolus are a hall of mirrors reflecting the protagonist’s divided psyche, they also offer all the genre thrills of a ghost train, rattling with savvy allusions to Dead Calm (1989), Adrift (2006), Ghost Ship (2002), The Shining (1980), TimeCrimes (2007), The Forgotten (2004), Carnival of Souls (1962) – and even Pirates of the Carribean: At World’s End (2007), whose upturned boats, Stygian crabs and multiple protagonists are, however improbably, all referenced here. So when Jess declares, “I feel like I know this place, I recognise these corridors,” we too are made to share her uncanny sense of déjà vu, as Smith maps out for us a terrain whose general contours we have certainly seen before, but whose shifting topography, now supernatural, now psychological, still leaves us as disoriented and confused as Jess herself. 

Synopsis: Single mother Jess is home getting herself and autistic son Tommy ready for a day-trip on  friend Greg’s yacht (the Triangle), when the doorbell rings – but there is nobody there. Arriving alone and distraught at the harbour, Jess sets sail with Greg and his friends Sally, Downey, Victor and Heather. When a freak storm upturns the Triangle, Heather is lost, and the remaining five scamper aboard an ocean liner (SS Aeolus) that appears out of the mist. Although Downey briefly glimpses a figure on the upper deck, the stately rooms and corridors of the ship appear otherwise deserted. A clanging sound heard down one passageway leads to a discarded set of Jess’ own keys, and as the group splits up in search of Heather, Jess becomes convinced she has been on the Aeolus before. Seeing her companions in turn die violently, and then watching from an upper deck as the five (including herself) board the Aeolus once again, Jess comes to realise that their masked attacker is in fact one of her (future) selves, trapped in a seemingly endless attempt to get off the boat and back to her son before the whole nightmarish loop can start over. Moving through her on-board adventures three times, Jess manages to return home, only to see herself inside hitting  Tommy. Jess rings the doorbell, and runs round the back of the house to surprise her abusive self with a sledgehammer. As she drives off, with a body stowed in the boot and an upset Tommy in the passenger seat, Jess collides head-on with a truck – and another Jess witnesses the fatal scene from the roadside, before being ferried alone by taxi to meet Greg at the harbour, promising her mysterious taxi driver that she will be back.         

© Anton Bitel