Triangle: Examining a Modern Classic Horror-Thriller

An underrated gem about death on a boat, Christopher Smith's Triangle is also a classic fable about sin and punishment, Ryan writes...

How can Triangle be summed up in just a sentence or two? It’s a thriller about a boat trip that goes horribly awry. Then it becomes a lean slasher flick set on an abandoned cruise liner. And then it flips over into – well, that’d just be spoiling things. And maybe this gets to the heart of why Triangle earned praise from critics but didn’t exactly soar at the box-office on its release in 2009: the movie doesn’t have any major stars, unless you count former Home & Away actress Melissa George or a pre-Hunger Games Liam Hemsworth, and it’s impossible to describe the plot in detail without ruining its many twists and turns.

If you’ve yet to see Triangle, then this is the time to stop reading and track a copy down. At the time of writing, it’s on Amazon Prime if you’re not in the business of buying discs from shops. For those who have seen it, here’s a dissection of its mind-bending events and possible meaning – and why it’s a fable of sin and punishment for the modern age…

A voyage into the unknown

Although Triangle has some of the dreamlike air of a David Lynch movie, its intricate plot is more akin to Nacho Vigalondo’s similarly excellent sci-fi thriller Timecrimes, mixed with the guilt-ridden angst of Brad Anderson’s The Machinist. Triangles recursive story and themes of sin and punishment are underlined by one character’s pointed mention of the Greek myth of Sisyphus: the king sentenced by Zeus to push a boulder up a hill for all eternity.

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Melissa George stars as Jess, a strung-out single parent visibly exhausted from looking after her autistic young son, Tommy. Jess gets a rare break from the grind of everyday life when she’s invited on a yacht trip by her friend, Greg (Michael Dorman). They’re joined by a few acquaintances who are conspicuously more wealthy and well-rested than Jess: there’s Sally (Rachael Carpani), who doesn’t much like Jess and hopes Greg will be more romantically interested in her friend, Heather (Emma Lung).

Also along for the are Downey (Henry Nixon), Sally’s dapper husband, and Victor (Liam Hemsworth), a young teen taken in by Greg. The champagne and awkward chatter are soon interrupted when a freak storm breaks out, capsizing the yacht, apparently drowning Heather and leaving the rest of the survivors bobbing about in the middle of the ocean. 

Seemingly out of nowhere, an ocean liner provides an unexpected lifeline; Jess, Greg and the rest of the survivors clamber aboard, and find the place seemingly deserted. Then they realise the whole ship seems trapped in time, as though it’s been floating around unmanned since the 1930s. And then a hooded, fleet-footed assailant starts killing the survivors one by one…

Like Groundhog Day or Edge Of Tomorrow, Triangle could be pigeonholed as a time-loop thriller, as it gradually emerges that Jess is experiencing the same events over and over. What brings Triangle slightly closer to Vigalondo’s Timecrimes, however, is that Jess – and only Jess – is aware of the time loop, and is capable of shifting its events through her decisions. In an additional, nightmarish twist, the actions of one loop reappear in the next; the survivors board the liner each day and perform the same actions as they did before, and Jess watches them being killed over and over again by the anonymous killer.

What Jess is slow to realise is that she herself is driving the events on the ship; the head injury sustained by Liam Hemsworth’s Victor is actually caused by Jess in a later time loop. The bullets striking a terrified Sally and Downey are fired by Jess who, in a later time-loop, was standing on the balcony in the theatre. Jess eventually discovers that the masked maniac is actually a future version of herself, who’s spent an untold amount of time careening around the same time loop and growing ever more desperate to get off the ship and back to her young son.

The mechanics of how all this works are, like Primer and Timecrimes before it, quietly mind-melting. But sitting with a piece of paper and working out how many versions of Jess there are on the ship, or how many incarnations of Sally she’s killed isn’t necessarily required to interpret Triangle’s potential meaning.

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A cycle of torment

In the movie’s third act, Jess falls overboard, wakes up on a beach and miraculously works her way back to civilization. For the briefest, strangest moment, it seems as though her ordeal is over – that is, until she reaches her front door and realises there’s a version of herself at home with her son. It’s here that we see another side to Jess for the first time: not just her weariness at looking after her child by herself, but also her anger and physical aggression.

While the movie doesn’t spell it out plainly, the suggestion seems to be that, back at the beginning of the film’s events, Jess accidentally killed her son in a burst of rage. Shocked and dazed after this act, Jess then boarded the boat with Greg and Victor; Victor even notes the strange way Jess reacts when he asks where Tommy is.

The events after the storm could then be read as a kind of purgatory or eternal punishment. Having committed the terrible sin of killing her own son, Jess is fated to experience the same emotions of guilt and desperation over and over again. Jess wants to get back to her house because she’s convinced that, if she can only return in time, she can prevent her earlier self from an act of murder.

We see the result of this in the final act: Jess kills the earlier version of herself and dumps the wrapped-up body in the back of her car; it’s probably not a stretch to assume that it was originally her son that went into the boot the first time around. The wheels of fate, however, are cruel, and a car accident leaves the luckless boy dead and Jess again standing by the road, grief-stricken at the loss of her son. Right on cue, along comes a taxi driver who, like another figure in Greek myth – Charon, who carries the souls of the dead across the river Styx – takes Jess back to the jetty, where her voyage on the yacht begins afresh.  

In interviews, writer-director Christopher Smith has said that he wanted to keep Triangle open to interpretation. “There are three ways for you to understand the story,” Smith told Indie London. “There’s the ‘Is it a Bermuda Triangle story and it’s all supernatural?’; there’s the ‘is she having a breakdown?’, and there’s the ‘did she get in a crash, get concussion and go off for the day?’ All those three things can work and you should feel emotionally satisfied at the end.'”

There’s also another reading of the movie that Smith doesn’t include in his list: that Jess died, either in her first car accident with the body of her son in the boot, or possibly later, when the yacht capsizes at sea. The time loop then becomes a form of eternal, sisyphean punishment in which Jess experiences the same events of desperation and murder over and over again. The Sisyphus name-drop isn’t the only allusion to punishment in Triangle, either; there’s also the significance of the seagull to consider. Just before her car accident, a seagull strikes her vehicle’s windscreen. Jess stops the car, picks up the seagull and throws it off a promenade and onto the beach. She – and we – see seagull land on a huge pile of identically bloodied and very dead birds; a sure sign that Jess is still trapped in an interminable loop.

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As this post points out, the seagull could be a subtle allusion to Coleridge’s poem The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, in which a sailor is cursed for killing an albatross. It’s worth noting, too, that several of the movies Smith lists as inspiration feature characters tormented by guilt or forced to relive traumatic events: Memento, in which the protagonist’s amnesia leaves him trapped in a cycle of grief and revenge. Don’t Look Now, in which a bereaved father is apparently haunted by the ghost of his dead daughter. Jacob’s Ladder, about a Vietnam veteran who experiences 70s New York as a hellish, paranoid Limbo. Even The Shining, which Smith references more than once in Triangle, has more common themes than is initially apparent.

The Shining is, in brief, about a husband tormented by the spirits of a ghostly hotel until he tries to kill his wife and son. Kubrick presents the film’s setting, the Overlook, as a maze which traps its victims and slowly robs them of their humanity. Triangle could be interpreted as The Shining in reverse, in that it’s about a character who’s already committed a taboo act and is then tormented for it: at first, it seems that the Overlook-like ocean liner, the Aeolus, is the maze; it transpires at the end that time itself is a labyrinth, presenting possible means of escape which are revealed to be dead-ends.

The other alternative, of course, is that Triangle can be enjoyed as an atmospheric horror thriller with a superb central performance from Melissa George. But it’s the thematic depth that makes Smith’s film stick in the mind and, appropriately, worth watching over and over again; Triangle‘s initially about a boat trip gone awry, but it’s also about a voyage into a stormy sea of guilt and punishment.