If you haven’t yet seen Christopher Smith’s mind-bending Triangle, go away and come back later. I want to discuss this movie and I won’t have you whining that I gave anything away.
Good, nice to see you again. Were you wearing that hat before?
Jess, single mom to the autistic Tommy, decides to have a day to herself. Taking up an offer to go sailing with Greg, who she barely knows, and his old friends from school (Lisa, Downey and their friend Heather, and his first mate Victor), Jess boards his yacht, the “Triangle”, and off they go a-sailin’. Coming upon an angry storm, the Triangle capsizes, Heather is sweapt away by the ocean, and the rest are trapped on the bow of the overturned yacht. Miraculously, they are rescued by a seemingly deserted oceanliner, the Aeolus. Jess experiences killer déjà vu and insists she’s been there before. While exploring the ship, searching for signs of other passengers, they discover her keys in the hallway and come upon the message “Go to the Theater” written in blood on a mirror.
Victor, bleeding from a deep headwound, suddenly appears and attacks Jess. She escapes just in time to see a mysterious hooded figure kill the others with a shotgun. The figure pursues her, they fight and she gets the upper hand. The figure’s muffled voice tells her to “kill them all” before falling back into the ocean. In shock, Jess wanders the boat, hearing music coming from an upper deck. Finding a phonograph, she turns it off just in time to hear more voices, begging for help. Through a window she sees the capsized Triangle, along with doppelgangers of Greg, Downey, Lisa, Victor and herself.
Following the group at a distance, feeling threatened by this “other her”, Jess acquires a shotgun of her own and manages to intervene, preventing the figure from shooting the new Downey and the new Lisa. But the hooded figure reveals itself to be the “other Jess”, stabbing an unsuspecting Downey and wounding Lisa. The first Jess finds Lisa lying bleeded on an upper deck, amidst a pile of other dead Lisas. As Lisa dies, Jess sees herself battling the hooded figure on the lower deck, sees the figure go into the water, watches herself retreat in search of the music, and then hears the crew of the Triangle calling again for help.
Trapped in a time loop, Jess comes to understand that the situation sets back to zero only after all of her new friends are dead—including “the other her”. And the only way for her to get back to her son is to somehow rework the events in her favor. Things get even stranger when she manages to escape the ship.
Carelessly promoted as a straight-forward slasher-at-sea, Triangle is one of the most intricately worked-out horror/science-fiction movies to come along in a very long time. It is not the “horror version of Groundhog Day” as its dismissive critics would have you believe. Every element in the story works on at least three different levels (including the title). Even the imagery fragments into visual puns telling you that what you see this time isn’t necessarily what you’ll see later. When Jess first comes aboard, she sees her image reflected in three mirrors. As she progresses, her reflection, her shadow, and of course Jess herself, is divided into multiples. The piles of dead Lisas, the swarm of seagulls over multiple bodies floating in the ocean, piles of lost necklaces—all indicate that Jess has been working on this problem for a very long time. If ever a movie required multiple viewings, it’s Triangle.
But where it has been accused of having plot holes—Victor’s attack occurring only once on screen where other incidents are depicted numerous times, for instance—Triangle provides one single clue that viewers have to take into account. It’s recounted three times, so there’s no excuse for missing it. “Aeolus” was the father of “Sisyphus”, the mythological Greek trickster doomed to roll a boulder uphill for all eternity. Each time he reaches the summit, the rock rolls over him and then back down again. This is his curse, we’re told, for not keeping a promise.
As with all Twilight Zone-esque kinds of stories like this, the time loop is brought on by Jess’s actions. This is her hell and we don’t learn until much later what she did to deserve it. She talks about being a good mother and we hear her tell her son that “everything will be all right now.” Then there is a time jump, then we’re at the dock with a confused-looking Jess, apologizing to Greg. He—and we—think she’s apologizing for being late. We know better later. The entire series of events is her boulder, her punishment for (possibly) one act of angry selfishness that horrifies even her upon reflection. And she’s doomed to try and make things right. Until that upper deck of dead Lisas sinks the Aeolus, one could presume.
Released theatrically only in the U.K., Triangle was dumped directly to DVD over here in the U.S. and a frustrating stroll through online “reviews” reveals why: “It’s stupid,” the kids say; “It makes no sense.” “Why does this happen?” Etcetera. Pitched as a horror movie, Triangle wound up, more often than not, getting caught in the wrong mitts.
As Jess, Melissa George is incredible. As she’s our anchor for the entire movie, she has our sympathies immediately due to the character-shorthand of “single mom to autistic kid”, but for a discerning viewer, she makes for good company even when we don’t agree with her actions because we can see her trying to work out the terrible situation. George allows us to witness Jess’s thought-processes. She’s spiraling into madness, gradually aware that she’s caused this Sophoclean situation, and succumbs to the obsession that this time it’ll be different. Even when she changes the outcome of one situation, she still ends up fighting herself until only one remains on that deck.
As engrossing as it is welcome, Triangle has been doomed to its own pseudo-Sisyphian task: finding an audience in the modern morass of entertainment. Unlike Sisyphus, however, Smith’s movie has found and will continue to find appreciative viewers. In those case, the boulder will reach the top of the mountain. When in Tartarus or the film industry, rarely is better than never.