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A Paternity Leave Review of "Triangle" (2009)

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Triangle is a fantastic movie.  For some strange reason, it is listed as a "horror" movie under most categories, but it's much more of a science-fiction thriller - although if you expand the definition to include existential fear, then it is very much a Horror film.  (Sort of like Wake in Fright, another excellent and tense movie that has sometimes been called "horror.")  Triangle is the type of movie that works better the less you know about it going in, so I'll just say that I really, really enjoyed it and I think you oughta go check it out sometime.

My Rating: 5 / 5

The Part Where I Give a Spoiler-Free Description of the Plot and Give You a List of Reasons to Watch It

Jess is a single mother who has been invited on a cruise on her friend's yacht.  (There's a passing reference to the fact that the cruise will go through part of the Bermuda Triangle, which I only mention since that lends itself to the film's title in some capacity, but otherwise it doesn't matter.)

Despite the general feeling of pep and excitement around her, Jess can't shake an unnerving and terrible feeling of dread; she wanders around in a state of dreamlike malaise.  Her friends aren't clear whether it's because she's just tired of raising her son by herself, or if there may be a deeper problem at play. Nevertheless, they push off and go to sea.

The cruise starts off well, but quickly turns to chaos when a freak thunderstorm comes out from the sea and overturns their boat.  Jess and company climb onto their capsized yacht and debate their next move.  For a moment, they seem hopelessly stranded - but then a cruise ship seems to come out of nowhere.  They call out to it and hail the attention of a mysterious passenger.

The ship passes by their boat just long enough that they can jump onboard.  It seems like they're safe... and then everything goes horribly wrong.

Anything else I say will give away enough of the story that it would dull the shock and dazzle of seeing it for the first time, so I won't get into the rest of the plot just yet.  Instead, let me just give you some basic bullet points on why I loved this movie so much, and then I'll openly talk about the film if you feel like learning all about it:

1) Ironically, for a movie with which I'm so cautious about spoilers, it lends itself well to repeat viewings.  So, good news!  Even if you do ruin the first-timer charm by spoiling the ending, there'll still be plenty in here to make it worth your while.

2) It's an incredibly intelligent and well-thought out thriller that avoids all the trappings of pseudoscience.  Considering that it's partially set in the Bermuda Triangle and looks like it might only have the budget of an Asylum film, this could easily have been one of those movies where somebody looks at the camera every five minutes and drops a complete load of bullshit like, "Y'know... every year, three thousand ships go into the Bermuda Triangle... and only two hundred come out."

But that never happens.  The filmmakers never step outside of the bounds of the story they want to tell and they never pretend to know more than they do.

3) It's beautifully constructed.  This is an amazingly tightly-plotted movie.  Every detail matters and everything pays off.  Even moments that seem to meander have a meaning and a reason, and characters who seem extraneous at least serve a narrative purpose.

4) The acting's pretty solid and the characters feel real (even if you don't believe it at first).  Movies frequently have this problem where they'll give you a group of "six normal people," but then you find out that none of them are even remotely normal.  (You know when you get together with five of your normal friends, one of them is a drunk, one of them is a cutthroat businessman, and one of them has a crack problem?  Just normal people, right?)  Either that, or they'll all be completely boring non-humans.  Triangle doesn't necessarily have the most memorable cast, but the characters are all realistic and grounded enough that it works.

5) It works on a metaphorical level as much as it does literally.  I don't require that movies have multiple meanings for me to consider them "great," but great movies often do go the extra step of putting in a little more subtext to make it worth you while.  Triangle has a great, tragic double meaning to its weirdness and I appreciate that they took the time.

Okay, now that I've given you my spiel, let's talk about the rest of it.  Spoilers from here on out.

The Part Where I Spoil the Hell Out of the Movie

This is totally a time travel movie.  Didya know that?  I didn't know that.  Pretty awesome twist.

After Jess and company go on the cruise ship, she starts freaking out and saying things like, "This looks familiar" or "I've been here before."  Then her group of friends starts to get stalked and gunned down by a masked assailant who murders them each in a different, horrible way.  It's pretty standard slasher fare for about twenty minutes, and then Jess knocks the Murderer off the side of the boat.

That's when she hears her friends calling for help.  She looks over the edge of the ship... and sees their overturned yacht drifting closer, with everybody alive and well.  Well, shoot.  Looks like we're caught in some kinda time loop.

The movie goes through the obligatory what is happening who are these people freakout sequence where Jess struggles to put the pieces together.  A lot of time travel movies or mind-trip movies will make that sequence last for a really long time - in some cases, that freakout sequence is the movie.  But what I really enjoyed about Triangle is that they let Jess get over it pretty quickly.  She picks up on the rules of her universe at least as fast as you, the viewer, will - so there's never any moments where you watch and you want to scream at the screen and be like, "How haven't you figured this out yet, asshole?!"

Before long, Jess realizes that the time loop has basically two inescapable rules: 1) The ship will wander aimlessly lost through time and space for as long as they are on it, and 2) If all of her friends die, then the yacht will reappear and give her the chance to escape.  Unfortunately, this means the only way for Jess to get back to her son is to kill everyone.

(Quick side note here: it's pretty obvious that the masked killer is Jess from the future, and Triangle once again realizes that its viewers are smart enough to guess that.  So the grand reveal of the killer's identity is not played up as too much of a shock - it's more of a natural step forward in her understanding of the world.  Another point to you, Triangle.)

There's a lot of great time travel moments as Jess loops through the murders of her friends three full times.  Triangle takes pains to establish that the time loop does not predestine her actions, but it is still a loop regardless.  There are changes in behavior throughout - sometimes drastic, sometimes subtle.  But every time there is a hint that Jess has tried that tactic before: a pile of identical lockets, or a pile of identical dead bodies, etc.

Eventually, Jess does manage to get off the ship - knocked overboard by a past version of herself - and she wakes up on a beach at the beginning of the movie.  She returns to her home, excited to see her son again.  But when she gets there, she sees a past version of herself through a window.  Past-Jess is cruel and nasty to her son, and abuses him when he makes a minor mess in the kitchen.  Present-Jess, now deadened to the shock of murder, bludgeons Past-Jess in order to take her place.

Present-Jess drives her son to school, promising him she'll become a better mother.  On the drive, though, she picks up on subtle cues that she's still caught in a time loop.  Then, while on the brink of a meltdown and screaming at her son to stop crying, she collides with an oncoming truck.  We learn that her son has been killed, and Jess has survived.

Distraught, she wanders back to the dock where her Past-Friends are getting ready to take the yacht out for their cruise.  She realizes that her only hope lies in jumping back into the loop again, but from the look on her face, you can tell that she has no hope she'll get it right this time.

The Part Where I Talk More About the Time Loop

This is one of the best implementations of a time loop in a movie that I've ever seen.  It's great because it gives you just the right amount of information and just the right amount of ambiguity.

I've always believed that the best science fiction or speculative fiction acknowledges that human beings as a species are capable of amazing discoveries and inventions, but as individuals we are almost helplessly lost and confounded by the universe.  We're just really self-conscious animals.  Good time travel stories play with the idea of people who have to succumb to natural forces even as they use man-made technologies to try to set things right.  Bad time travel stories are cocky and narrowly-drawn, with characters who somehow know how to "win."

The time loop in Triangle is a good example of the former.  Although you (and Jess) learn the rules of the universe quickly, anything you (or Jess) might think to try out probably actually has been tried out... and it didn't work like you (or Jess) thought it would.  Jess actually tries a variety of approaches in the story and by the end you realize that it's not an exhaustive documentary on her exploits - you're just seeing one of the loops that happened to run a little bit longer than usual.

One of the fun things about movies like this is that they give you enough grey area to come up with your own interpretations and theories without being strictly "right" or "wrong."  (And I'm talking about actual ambiguity here, not stupid crap like people who see the ending of 12 Monkeys and somehow think it's an open question as to whether or not the virus will spread.)

For example: you could make the argument that there's basically two distinct and intertwining loops, with a "Bad Jess" universe (where she gets shot in the head by Good Jess) and a "Good Jess" universe (the one we watched), but that the loops double back on themselves; in this case, the story ends with "Good Jess" beginning the loop where she will turn into "Bad Jess."

I'm content to just enjoy the time travel shenanigans for what they are, but that last idea leads me to one of the better parts of this film: the abuse metaphor.

Now I'll Write About That Metaphor

Triangle is this great and tragic story about an inescapable and seemingly endless cycle of domestic abuse.  Jess hurts her son and seems to be an evil woman to an outside observer.  In the moment, she feels justified.  Later, when she realizes what she's done, she hates herself and wants to change.  She'll make promises - "I'll never do this to you again, baby!  Things are different from now on!"  But as long as she has the capacity for evil inside of her - and as long as she's willing to let that dictate her actions - she'll just fall back into bad habits.

So she just drifts in and out of the cycle endlessly.

It can come across as hopelessly defeatist, but I think that's only if you look at it from the perspective of Present-Jess being able to return to "normal."  The problem is that "normal" is the universe where she's an awful person that never changes.  If she really wants to break the cycle, she has to actually grow or make a sacrifice of some sort.

The real tragedy is that she never realizes that the only happy ending is to remove herself from the situation.  Suppose Jess gets back onto the cruise ship, goes through the loop just long enough for her friends to materialize again, and then goes to the landing pad where they're about to jump onto the ship.  She can shout to them - "Don't!"  She can warn them.  She can warn herself.  The ship can drift away from the yacht, leaving her friends (and past self) behind to survive, and there's a possibility that they can learn from it.

In that scenario, Present-Jess goes on to die a long and tedious death alone on her spooky cruise ship.  As for Past-Jess?  Who knows.  She might fall into bad habits again, or she might take it as a wake-up call and try to set things right.  Maybe the damage is already done and she can't undo it, or maybe it'll break the cycle completely.  But there's at least a chance at happiness.

Present-Jess never tries that because she doesn't actually want to change.  And that is why abuse continues: it's a lot easier to make promises and cross your fingers than it is to make the painful, but correct, decision to improve.

Triangle is a bit of a convoluted way to teach that lesson, but it's an important one.

The film is available on Blu-Ray, DVD, and streaming.  I'd recommend buying it, but... you know, to  each his/her own.