'Triangle of Sadness': A Biting Social Satire on the Sea
It could be argued that Ruben Östlund is one of our finest modern satirists. Whether he's tackling masculinity and familial relationships with 2014's Force Majeure, or skewering the art world and the upper class like he did with 2017's The Square, he has a distinct voice and wry sense of humor that makes for some biting commentary on whatever he sets his eye on. While Östlund's sensibilities might not be for everyone, it's hard to deny that he is a rather assured filmmaker, and that he is capable of making some great works of satire. With his latest film, Triangle of Sadness, Östlund once again sets his sights on the upper class, but expands his scope ever so slightly to deliver an ensemble comedy that reckons with the class system itself, specifically the power dynamics and divides within it. But while his previous satires have had a bit more subtlety to them, Triangle is a bit sillier and cruder by comparison. It still has Östlund's distinct voice, and has shades of his previous work, but it feels like he is stretching himself a little, and he is a bit more playful here. On top of that, he plays fast and loose with the film's structure, which at times feels daring and effective, but often seems a little unfocused. However, the film still has some sharp commentary and is very funny, and is yet another strong effort from Östlund.
The film is split into three sections, with the first focusing solely on two models named Carl and Yaya (played by Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean, respectively). The two are currently dating, but are together more as a way to boost each other's social media following instead of love. They are invited to go on a luxury cruise, where they meet a variety of wealthy people, as well as the crew and the ship's captain (played by Woody Harrelson). In the other two sections, we see the power dynamics at play on the ship, and see what happens when the dynamics begin to shift, and the cruise becomes more than what the passengers bargained for.
I have been a fan of Ruben Östlund since I first saw Force Majeure a few years back. He is a great screenwriter, and a pretty solid director too. One thing I appreciate about him is that he has a distinct voice, but he is not afraid to make some small changes to better accommodate the story he is telling. This is especially true of Triangle of Sadness, which has a more overt brand of humor, and tiptoes towards being a bit more heightened at times. His previous films feel a bit more grounded, and there are definitely moments where this film has that same vibe, but Triangle is less subtle with its humor, and it is not afraid to be crude or dark. Östlund is certainly no stranger to dark comedy, but the humor in this film feels quite acidic, and is almost mean-spirited at times. It's always a gamble to lean into that type of comedy, but he pulls it off quite well, and this just might be his funniest film to date.
However, the film does feel a bit unfocused, mainly due to its structure. I would argue that this is an ensemble comedy, and while there is one throughline in the three sections that the film is divided into, it ends up feeling a bit scattered here and there. This makes sense given that the film is more ensemble driven, but the focus shifts so much during the three sections, that it makes the film not feel fully cohesive in certain moments. I think it comes together just fine, but it still feels a little unfocused from time to time. Thankfully, the script is strong enough as a whole to make up for some its shortcomings, and Östlund's direction is so assured and confident that I can't be too mad at some of his more unconventional flourishes. In fact, these tend to work more often than not, but when they don't work, it is pretty glaring.
The film does make great use of its ensemble, and just about everyone has their moment to shine. Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean are quite good, especially in the first section of the film. They both capture the vapidity of their characters perfectly, and they play off each other so well. I was also impressed by Dean's screen presence, as she is quite striking, even in her quieter moments. I also loved Zlatko Burić's performance as Dimitry, a Russian fertilizer magnate and passenger on the cruise. He is perhaps the funniest character, and the gregariousness he gives the character makes it hard to dislike him, even though his character is not exactly the best person. Woody Harrelson is also great as Thomas, the alcoholic captain of the ship. Harrelson isn't in too much of the film, but he definitely leaves an impact. He is a major part of the middle section of the film, and an extended sequence involving a dinner between him and the passengers is the centerpiece of the whole film. Harrelson and Burić are especially great in this sequence, and the scene where their characters meet and trade pro-capitalist and pro-socialist quotes is quite amusing.
For me, however, the film's true standout is Dolly de Leon, who plays Abigail, a cleaner aboard the ship. She only appears briefly in the film's second section, but she practically dominates the third section, and is electric during it. She commands the screen, and she has several moments during the film's third act that stunned me. Specifically, she has a monologue where she is addressing some of the other characters that is fantastic, and the energy she brings to it radiates throughout the rest of the film. She gives one of my favorite performances of the year, and I would love to see her get some awards love for her work here.
The film has a rather beautiful look to it throughout, and a lot of the shots are composed quite nicely. The overall aesthetic works in two ways, as it enhances the luxuriousness of the ship and the lives the characters live, and contrasts well against the more crude and darker moments of the film. Fredrik Wenzel's cinematography is gorgeous, and he uses movement so masterfully throughout the film. The aforementioned dinner sequence is a prime example, as he is doing so many things that truly impressed me. One of which is a slow, side-to-side tilt to simulate the way the ship is moving on the water. It gives off the feeling of seasickness, which plays into the rest of the sequence perfectly. The film's production design is pretty good as well, with the ship having a distinct charm, and the film's use of color is quite effective too. The film is more visually striking than I was expecting, and is quite memorable in this regard.
Triangle of Sadness is a clever satire, and showcases Ruben Östlund's wit and eye for filmmaking excellently. The more I sit with it, the more I appreciate it, and it is one of the funnier films I've seen this year. It might be a bit messy, but I like what Östlund is going for here, and some of his more ridiculous choices work more often than not. It has some pretty solid commentary as well, and has one of the strongest ensemble casts of the year. I wouldn't call this my favorite of Östlund's work that I've seen, but it is still pretty great overall, and cements him as one of our finest satirical filmmakers working today.