With such features as, Force Majeure and Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winning The Square, Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund has established himself as an expert satirist with a clean, measured approach to shooting a scene. His style feels reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick at his most diabolical with concise framing, long takes, and a cold, removed point of view. His latest, Triangle Of Sadness, which also took the top prize at Cannes, continues in this vein, albeit with a heavier hand yet no less entertaining. His interest this time out explores the natural instincts of the haves vs. the have-nots, positing that given the chance, we’re all capable of truly hideous behavior.
Told in three stylistically distinct chapters, the story begins with our protagonist, Carl (Harris Dickinson of Beach Rats and Where The Crawdads Sing), a 25-year-old model who, after some success, finds himself put out to pasture by once again going to cattle call auditions and losing his prime seat at a fashion show. In its first scenes, we also learn the meaning of the title, which is surprising, hilarious, and resonates in different ways as the story progresses. Carl’s model/influencer girlfriend Yaya (Charlbi Dean, a promising actor who tragically passed away shortly before the film’s release) has a soaring career and little patience for Carl’s downward trajectory. An early and masterful sequence starts with Carl reminding Yaya that she promised to pick up the check at their expensive dinner, leading to her passive-aggressive dismissal of his request. This argument spills over into their hotel elevator, the opening and closing doors of which underscore the class divide between the pair. Östlund finds that perfect mix of anger, confusion, and manipulation at play between a couple where love plays second fiddle to whatever else defines their devolved relationship. Arguably the strongest section in navigating the complexity and minutiae of human interaction, the film segues into a more global view of our doomed species.
Next, we find ourselves on a luxury yacht, where amongst the super rich, Carl accompanies Yaya, who has used her Instagram clout to secure a free trip for the pair. We meet a gaggle of one percenters, chief among them being Dimitry (Zlatko Buric), a Russian capitalist fertilizer baron and an elderly couple who you’d never suspect have spent their lives as arms dealers. The upstairs crew consists of one Aryan beauty after another, while downstairs we find all of the people of color who do the most menial of tasks. One housekeeper in particular, Abigail (a fantastic Dolly De Leon) barely registers in this section, but keep an eye on her as she’ll find her spotlight soon enough.
Woody Harrelson plays the Marxist captain of the ship and spends quite a bit of time nursing a hangover behind closed doors before we finally get a glimpse of him halfway through the film. His clash of ideologies with Dimitry nearly hijacks the story and exposes its total lack of subtlety. Luckily, we have many encounters between passengers and staff which shine a light on the impenetrable bubble the rich inhabit. Some of these moments, such as when the staff get trained on always saying yes, or when one guest insists an employee drop what she’s doing and get in the water fully clothed, nail the absurdity so perfectly. Same goes for an unimpeachably disgusting central set piece in which the boat hits rough waters, the seafood our passengers dine on has gone bad, and bodily fluids rain down on everyone. To call it a literal sh*tstorm would only describe half of it. Needless to say, this section does not lead to sunshine and roses, yet it’s beautifully shot by Östlund’s mainstay cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel. It can take its place among the more memorable boating disaster sequences such as those from The Poseidon Adventure and Titanic, albeit on a much smaller scale.
Where this all goes in its final third I will leave a mystery. All I’ll say is that the story strips away everything about our characters to expose their true natures. It’s like an entire season of Survivor compressed into 45 minutes as we watch people who make chess moves on each other in order to find a higher place on the pecking order. Unfortunately, this last part slows down to a crawl at times, but gets saved by De Leon’s contributions and Östlund’s thesis about human nature determining outcomes more than such constructs as wealth and background privilege. The penultimate moment features a delicious ambiguity followed by a head scratcher of a final shot which will make you want to analyze with anyone within earshot. Triangle Of Sadness may feel thuddingly obvious at times and painfully slow at others, but sometimes a dark reflection of who we are can make us laugh while also churning our stomachs. I can’t wait to see what bear Östlund pokes next.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Triangle Of Sadness opened in select U.S. theaters on October 7th 2022.