Triangle of Sadness

Directed by: Ruben Östlund
Distributed by: Neon

Written by Anna Harrison


“Triangle of Sadness” is many things. It is not, however, subtle—unless you think a sledgehammer is, too. The title even gets namedropped in the opening act (a surefire sign that a movie is either in on the joke or the butt of it, or sometimes both), a stinging remark by a casting director aimed at a man named Carl (Harris Dickinson), a model whose biggest perfume ad was years ago and whose “triangle of sadness” between his eyes begs for a bit of Botox. Though Carl may not have capital-M Money, he’s still doing alright, though not as well as his girlfriend, Yaya (the late Charlbi Dean), whose status as hot runway model and influencer ensures she’s well taken care of, though a card declining at a restaurant may signal otherwise. This is a source of stress for Carl, who begins to argue with Yaya in the first act (subtitled “Carl and Yaya”) about who pays for dinner more—he thinks gender roles are silly and wants her to pay so the two of them function as equals. That’s the only reason, obviously. That’s the only reason he repeatedly stops the elevator door from closing as he thinks of another point to sling at Yaya, who will later describe herself—rather baldly—as manipulative, in a fit of postfeminist insecurity and excellent comedy from Dickinson. 

When Yaya gets invited aboard an expensive yacht for free, though, Carl jumps at the chance, insecurity be damned. There, they are surrounded by the crème de la crème: among them, a British couple (Oliver Ford Davies and Amanda Walker) who made their money in “precision engineering” (read: weapons manufacturing) and who happen to be named Winston and Clementine for no reason at all, a Russian capitalist named Dimitriy (Zlatko Burić) who made his fortune in the fertilizer (read: shit) business, and a Swedish coding guy (Henrik Dorsin) who freely offers to buy Rolex watches for anyone who’s nice to him. They lounge, and Carl gets a worker inadvertently fired when he complains to the straight-laced chief stewardess, Paula (Vicki Berlin), that the man was taking his shirt off while working—the real offense, however, isn’t the man’s pectoral muscles, but the fact that Yaya was ogling them. 

Act two—“The Yacht”—is where Östlund really hammers it home. The yacht is divided into three groups: the passengers, the crew above decks (all white), and the crew below (all not). The passengers are varying shades of unbearable, each trying to pretend that their awareness of class difference somehow means that they are suddenly equals with the people serving them. Dimitriy’s wife, Vera (Sunnyi Melles), gets drunk on champagne and insists that the staff should be allowed to swim—you know, since they’re equal. This proves to be deadly, as it means that that night’s dinner of various fish and oysters is left unattended for several hours as the crew dutifully goes down the slide, following Vera’s orders to have fun. At the captain’s dinner, shit hits the fan. Literally.

The dinner sequence, which involves copious amounts of vomit from everyone not Dimitriy or the alcoholic Captain Thomas (Woody Harrelson), is not for the faint of stomach and has drawn divisive remarks. Depending on your tolerance for gross-out movies, you will either feel a sense of morbid glee (as I did) or find it distasteful and unnecessary.

This should have been the movie’s climax: the rich hurling up the consequences of their actions, the above decks crew left to tend to them, and the belowdecks crew left to tend to their vomited leftovers. Thomas and Dimitriy escape to the captain’s quarters, where they debate Marx and Reagan over the ship’s intercom, discussing the finer points of economic theory: everyone else is left to rot and shit their brains out as the two have their erudite discourse (or as erudite as you can be when you’re rip-roaring drunk). Trickle-down economics has never been so effective as it is here, when the shit moves from one rich man’s cabin down through the rest of the ship, spreading from the top into every corner. It’s about as disgusting as you’d expect, and as unsubtle as it sounds, but Östlund, assisted by a technical mastery of framing and editing, turns it into a five-act show. If there has ever been a “you love it or you hate it” scene, this is it, and it perfectly captures the movie’s thesis.

It’s a shame, then, that “Triangle of Sadness” must have a third act: “The Island.” After the shitstorm and the arrival of some pirates, the passengers and some lucky crew members find themselves stranded, and what follows is something we’ve seen a million times before. What could have been an opportunity for Thomas’s communist paradise dream instead becomes another brutal ladder to climb to the top, only this time, it’s toilet lady Abigail (Dolly de Leon, very good) who finds her role reversed, as she’s the only one stranded who has any common sense. She ascends to power, and once there, she finds she enjoys it. Everything is a cycle, it’s all a wheel, et cetera, et cetera. After such a memorable second act, to watch another “Lord of the Flies” adaptation is annoying. 

There are moments of insightful commentary, some brief flashes of humor, and some more gross moments (in case you were missing them), but the energy dies. If act two wasn’t exactly treading new ground, it at least was walking a well-worn path in some new shoes. Act three is old news in every sense. If only there had been a two-sided shape Carl could have been called, then maybe we would have only had two acts.

“Triangle of Sadness” Trailer

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