Much like this year’s The Menu, Triangle of Sadness takes aim at the pinkies-out dilettantes who punish the world with their platinum-coated sense of entitlement. Despite this similarity, the two films are actually defined by their differences: Triangle is broader, bolder, and more sweepingly ambitious than its satirical cousin. That’s not to say it’s the better film. Where The Menu seems content to score a touchdown, Triangle barrels along with the hedonistic abandon of Forrest Gump on a kickoff return. By the film’s second half, it’s bowled over the marching band and scrambled out of the stadium. Whether or not you’ll want to join it on this journey to wackiness is another matter.
The story, written and directed by Ruben Östlund, splits into three very different sections. In the first, a beautiful young couple attempts to figure the parameters of their relationship. Carl (Harris Dickinson) is a model, while Yaya (Charlbi Dean) makes good money as a social media influencer. For much of the film’s first act, they engage in an increasingly heated squabble over money. He fumes that she manipulates him into springing for meals and Uber rides, even though she’s the wealthier partner. She finds it “unsexy” to talk money, effectively killing the buzz of their relationship. Carl loves Yaya, but her feelings don’t seem to run so deep.
This spat leads into the second segment, wherein Carl and Yaya get invited onto a lavish cruise. Their trip is free, as long as they share pics and posts to social media. Fellow passengers include some of the wealthiest snobs in the world. Dimitry (Zlatko Burić) is a Russian fertilizer tycoon who’s taken to capitalism like a glutton to lunch. His wife (Sunnyi Melles) has also embraced this life of unapologetic decadence. They swill champagne and patronize the ship’s staff. Winston (Oliver Ford Davies) and Clementine (Amanda Walker) are a pleasant, elderly couple who’ve made a fortune peddling grenades and land mines. Finally, Jarmo (Henrik Dorsin) is an app developer who wants to score a little strange, and he’s not afraid to throw around a little money to do it.
These upper class twits are served by a large, diverse crew. Östlund must’ve watched Bravo’s Below Decks, because the stewards and chefs are an assortment of gorgeous people with unplaceable accents. Paula (Vicki Berlin) is their unflappable manager. Her main function seems to be agreeing to every passenger request, no matter how spoiled or stupid it may seem. Below them, a large group of Filipino locals quietly toil to keep the ship afloat.
At the helm of all these passengers and crew is Captain Thomas (Woody Harrelson). For most of the voyage, he seems to be lurching around his darkened cabin in a bathrobe, as empty wine bottles roll and clatter on the floor. When Paula pounds on his door, he greets her with sheer annoyance: How dare anyone interrupt his bender?
This fateful voyage comes to a head when Thomas finally sobers up enough for a Captain’s dinner. The snooty guests assemble for a highfalutin meal that includes grilled octopus and seaweed salad. Meanwhile, Thomas gulps whiskey and rolls his eyes at the daffy passengers. (One woman is irate at the ship’s dirty sails. Upon hearing there are no sails, she remains adamant: “I expect something to be done about this.” Paula nods and cheerfully shoos the woman away.)
As the ship hits choppy seas and guests attempt to choke down their slimy dinners, it’s inevitable that someone’s going start a chain reaction of violent barfing. Let me give you a word of caution: This sequence is not for the weak of stomach. Don’t even think of watching this movie during or immediately after a meal. In fact, these scenes are just a warmup for something even more disgusting. This section of the film makes the food poisoning bit in Bridesmaids look tasteful and restrained, by comparison.
These bodily functions lead us to Triangle’s finale, which is a humdinger. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that the film’s inhabitants are thrust into a survival situation. Here, the film becomes a wry study of human nature. This section gives rise to Abigail (Dolly de Leon), the ship’s toilet scrubber. She might be the meanest and most resourceful person on the ship, and she takes full advantage of a sudden vacuum of power.
The resulting film has lots to love. Harrelson does so well playing stumbling, slurring malcontents, producers probably have him on speed dial for scripts like this. Burić is equally good, as the sweaty, shouting oligarch for whom the word boorish could’ve been invented. De Leon’s opportunistic tyrant makes for a frightening villain, while Dickerson plays Carl as the best-looking wet blanket you’ll ever see. With all that said, Triangle of Sadness has an undercurrent of real sadness: Dean, who gives her bratty #influencer doses of warmth and humor, passed away from an infection before the film hit wide release. Her obvious talent gives a sad glimpse of what could’ve been a promising career.
Triangle of Sadness presents the same conundrum as The Menu. (Indeed, the two reviews are strikingly similar.) How do I rate it? As a satire, it punctures rich, starchy jerkwads, something that’s always a pleasure to watch. It got a few big laughs out of me. Still, I know that gooey, grimy midsection will be off-putting for many viewers. I realize that’s the point, but I also keeps me from giving this a big recommendation. This is bravura filmmaking, to be sure, but it’s also not for everyone. I suppose it’s a philosophical question: Could I ever award a movie 5 stars if it has to come with a warning?*
147 min. R. On demand and in theaters. With its Oscar nomination for Best Picture, this will undoubtedly pop up on streaming soon.
* = From now on, we’ll call this the Midsommar Conundrum.