As terrific as Christopher Smith's paradoxical, mind-bending Triangle is, the most amazing thing about it is that it isn't based on a short story by Richard Matheson. This spectral time-looping conundrum is exactly the sort of brain-bashing SF concept that the acclaimed author thrived upon in anthologies and in TV scripts. Playing like a darker, more demented and actually quite harrowing Twilight Zone episode - it also reminds me of the old and unsuccessful British TV series, Sapphire And Steel, with Joanna Lumley and David McCallum as humanoid “elements” playing time detectives - the UK/Australian co-production of Triangle, the third feature from the British director/writer and his producer triumvirate of Jason Newmark, Julie Baines and Chris Brown, lands us in deep water as single mother Jess (played by the ever-gorgeous Melissa George) and some new seafaring acquaintances wind up aboard a seemingly deserted and decidedly ghostly ocean liner after a supernatural storm capsizes their yacht in the middle, wouldn't you know it, of the Bermuda Triangle. Whilst Jess has strange feelings of deja vu of the labyrinthine corridors, steps and dining room, a mysterious and only fleetingly observed figure that is also aboard the vessel commences a campaign of seek of destroy, wiping them out, one by one. So far, so conventional. But as shock piles upon shock, and literally before you have time to think, it suddenly appears that it is Jess, herself, who is responsible for the killings. Yet how can she be in two places at once?
With panic setting in and a desperate battle ensuing between herself and the killer, Jess is further unhinged when she witnesses what appears to be herself and her friends boarding the ghost-boat again, exactly as they had done previously. Time is repeating itself and Jess is caught in some sort of self-perpetuating loop. Although the ghost-liner, the Aeolus, is travelling, Marie Celeste-style, through the infamous Bermuda Triangle, references to the dreaded maritime trouble-spot aren't made. Instead, the film's title refers to the yacht skippered by Jess' potential paramour, Greg (played by likeable New Zealander Michael Dorman) and the three-phase structure that Jess boarding the liner sets in motion. The metaphorical triangle is both a window looking onto and exposing inner demons - a guilt trip, maybe - and a spiritual trap, each side of the enclosing shape hinged and able to open, but forever shutting every time they are reached in a what amounts to a vicious cycle of psychotic condemnation.
This is grand stuff for a film that many may have once suspected was little more than a flamboyant slasher-pic, of course, but the obvious parallels and antecedents are worn proudly on the film's sleeve. Memento, Groundhog Day, Irreversible and The Machinist naturally spring to mind, and it is Brad Anderson's sleep-deprived moral tripwire that most seems to share the same tormented void of deadly cycles working forever inward towards an inescapable conclusion. Delve a little deeper and you have the precognitive perception of Roeg's Don't Look Now, the prophetic multiple-doom of The Prestige and, if the whole concept of maritime weirdness and history repeating itself floats your boat, then there is even The Final Countdown to count amongst its vortex-ensnared brethren. But it would be hard to dispute that it is the excellent, possibly even superior, Spanish SF-mind-bender, Timecrimes, from Nacho Vigalondo, that Triangle seems keenest to emulate. Even down to the masked mystery antagonist (bloody bandages in Timecrimes, a sackcloth boiler-mask here) - which was also a staple image from Spain's equally astonishing The Orphanage - Smith's story follows the same template, almost to the letter, albeit bolder and more dramatically compelling. Someone made the comment that Smith probably wishes he had his own means of time travel in order to cement his take on the story first, and this could well be true, for many critics were quick to seize upon the similarity of the two plots and, thus, Triangle, although it was also greeted with much praise, was considered a lesser example of the same concept.
But, regardless of that, this is fine, slick and emotionally resonant in a way that Vigalondo's actually quite amusing movie simply isn't. Christopher Smith is, on the surface at any rate, taking the idea very seriously indeed. So, whilst a good old mystery-shocker like this is always good fun, he makes certain that we don't get cosy and comfortable. The film is, in fact, violent and messy, and there are plenty of gasp-out-loud twists and revelations to both pull the rug out from under our feet and to compound the ghastliness of the situation still further. But one crucial element of the story - and this is no spoiler, folks - is that Jess has to get back home again to be there for her autistic young son ... and it is this heart-wrenching conceit that spikes ours and our heroine's agony to an almost unbearable pitch. Thus, Triangle is no quaint old throwback chiller that just seeks to have us scratching our heads at its sheer perceptual audacity. It also wants to hurt us. And, I have to admit, it succeeds in such a way that some moments are so traumatic that they deliver gut-punches that won't exactly heal overnight.
Remembering his visceral approach from his earlier productions, Smith orchestrates set-pieces that are furious and intense. We get the fabulous electrical storm sequence that may, or may not, be the catalyst for what follows, that is swift and aggressive, violently battering the little yacht and genuinely leaving you shocked and gasping for breath. Chases and skirmishes around the ship are also well-handled, especially as we are even treated to such breakneck episodes from differing angles and character perspectives as the cycle swings around again, and again. You even attempt to second-guess what will come next - which is a great but also frustrating little game to play, as this will inevitably find you questioning just why Jess does things that simply conform to what she knows has already gone before and can't possibly alter the outcome. Even watching the film for a fourth time, just prior to writing this review, I felt myself actually tempted to shout out at the screen to instruct Jess what to do - such is the enveloping, and addictive quagmire of the scenario.
Beneath the superficial strategies that the plot circumnavigates, there are plentiful sleights and shorthand tricks that Smith's screenplay takes, though these can easily be scattered to the four winds in favour of simply buying into the warped story. Strangely, though, I think that the ship, itself, is actually underused despite all of the running around, the spooky messages written in blood and the clock that doesn't advance. The atmosphere of dementia and paranoia always stems from Jess and her immediate plight, hardly ever from the intimidatingly empty vastness of the Aeolus. Thus, although we are definitely straying into haunted house territory, the ship never feels as if it is alive, or even a willing accomplice in the events that occur. In this way, such a big, massive “character” as the phantom liner merely feels convenient to the plot. Still, this lack of traditional supernatural menace is probably down to the fact that the pace never really lets up which, in itself, is commendable. And, for a film that wraps the same sequence of happenings around us like a noose, there is none of that overly elaborate, time-wasting idiocy of the thoroughly lamentable Vantage Point, either. Everything that occurs feels valid and startlingly “in the moment”.
Seagulls are reputed to be harbingers of doom and death and the film keeps one or two them - possibly the same ones, if you think about it - loitering around Jess. Little visual licks of her looking into her own fractured reflection, the discovery of identical dropped lockets, and even the vague mention of the liner's cheating-death name, Aeolus, sort of give the game away a little early on, but the enigma isn't of the whodunit or even the whydunit variety at all, as these elements are swiftly dispensed-with. Triangle is much more of a “break-the-cycle” story. Once we get the gist of Jess' predicament, we are complicit in her every effort to thwart it and escape, and, as a result, free to suffer the exact same horror of each new expansion to the pattern that she experiences. There is something very British about this narrative structure. We have the cards laid out before us and then we are tasked with simply dealing with it. The reasons behind it all become moot, once the game is underway, akin to the little parlour trick that is played in Resnais' Last Year At Marienbad (to which this limbo-locked film owes a considerable debt as well) in that the result will always be the same.
Well, I've been in love with Melissa George since the early days when she played Angel in Home and Away, so I'm probably biased towards her anyway. But be that as it may, any such favouritism is rendered null and void by a performance that is, inarguably, incredible. Given a part that truly puts her through the emotional and physical wringer, George keeps her head above such turbulent water with admirable gusto. Shouldering an enormous weight of guilt, terror, rage, fierce determination and, ultimately, such a haunting quality of ghostly devotion that she becomes a figure of supernatural heartbreak, it is admirable that we cling to her, whatever revelations are thrown back at us. We are with her every anguished step of the way. One look into her eyes reveals more about the nature of the time-loop than any amount of plotting explanation can ever do. Having won her genre spurs already in the remake of The Amityville Horror, opposite Ryan Reynolds, and then playing the soul-ravaged copper-wife to Josh Hartnett's Alaskan Sheriff in 30 Days Of Night - we'll leave wasted eco-horror, Turistas, out for now - it seems clear that George is drawn to feisty, but emotionally devastated characters. Although I'd like to see her break this mould, Grey's Anatomy notwithstanding, I must confess that I adore watching her battle against such damaging situations. She possesses something of a haunted and dislocated charisma that reminds me of such 60's and 70's genre heroines as Catherine Deneuve (Repulsion), Mia Farrow (Rosemary's Baby), Barbara Steele (Black Sunday) and Julie Christie (Demon Seed), even if it is also accompanied by a testy resilience and wanton fight-back spirit that the likes of Sigourney Weaver and Jamie Lee Curtis ushered-in. She sold me on her gun-toting snowbound cop making a last stand against vampires in 30 Days, and I fell for her fate-locked mum-in-distress, wholesale, here. Which is just as well, because even though we get solid support from the handful of other cast members, particularly Liam Hemsworth as the down-to-earth slacker, Victor, she carries the movie, positively anchoring it.
Any film that attempts to wrestle such a head-wrecking concept into an involving story is asking for trouble. No matter how hard the makers try to lock down their narrative, there are going to be holes that can't be plugged ... and people who are hell-bent on exposing them. Triangle, inevitably, walks on such thin-ice, itself, but with considerably less fall-out than you might think. This is a film that absolutely demands that you view not just once more, but a couple of times more. Like a Rubik Cube, just when you've nailed one complete side, the move to another just sends the first one into oblivion. The truly inspired thing about the screenplay is that it is a loop. No matter how many deviations that you can come up with - each damn eventuality has already been played out, and though this does not halt any further attempts to defeat its vile trap, this sideways slice of fate will always fold back upon the same scenario. One particularly inspired note of poignancy achieved by this repetition is not even supernaturally derived - and all exasperated parents who have ever felt the immediate grief and regret of having shouted at, or struck a child will know it when it comes. And this is where Smith's story finds that extra-honed edge that takes it beyond the trappings of its already gene-spliced genre.
Hence, this is a film that you can't resist playing again immediately after the end titles have rolled. And, credit where it is due, the opening section - which could, like so many dramatised puzzles before it, simply fall apart upon closer inspection - actually holds up remarkably well. It isn't perfect, of course ... but this only makes you realise just what a difficult task Smith, with his writer's head on, had in trying to make everything fit. Basically, he can't - but this doesn't actually affect the ensuing/repeating odyssey badly at all. Mood is the key, and although you can't help questioning why certain things happen, why the pattern initially clings so steadfastly to its own regime time and again, you begin to realise that whatever cycle we are witnessing at any one time, it is only one of many. And that they will all, inexplicably, link together.
With a menacingly ambient score from Christian Henson that recalls Solaris and Moon, as well as some of the more mesmerising giallo music from Ennio Morricone with that plaintiff, wordless female lullaby, dream-lapse and emotive photography from Robert Humphreys, and an inspired and courageous performance from Melissa George, Triangle is one of those great unsung SF thrillers that comes in under the radar and then, if there is any justice in the world, goes on to achieve something of a cult status via word-of-mouth. Whilst Severance was just good gory fun and Creep was just awful, Smith appears to have found his feet with this tense and upsetting drama. Cleverly, his film can be viewed as either pure science-fiction or as a terrible psychotic episode but, cunningly, it has to be viewed more than once - and it guarantees a better experience and more of shelf-live than, say, either The Sixth Sense or The Prestige in this regard. Fashioning a residue that lingers deviously in the mind for a long time afterwards - you will be going over it again and again and chasing your own tail as a result - they have created a recurring existential nightmare that just won't go away. Comparisons to Vigalondo's Timecrimes are unavoidable, and the micro-budgeted Spanish thriller did get there first by about two years - Smith is very keen to point out that he had the idea for his film several years earlier, however - but Triangle benefits from the higher gloss, a much more attractive protagonist and much improved adrenaline-pumping and dynamic set-pieces. His knack for the sudden, jolting stinger is also more accomplished and this ensures that Triangle will also provide plenty to enjoy for those coming in to it in the erroneous belief that it is just some sort of horror film. The little in-joke for fans of The Shining is disposable and, at least, occurs without any knowing wink that would have cheapened the effect. Smith knows his genre, and ticks off all the right boxes but, to his credit, he doesn't slavishly pepper his film with signposted references to keep audiences in the right ballpark. Hence, with Triangle, he has matured way beyond the risible Creep and the daft excesses of Severance.
Playing like the horror equivalent of Moon, Triangle will hit certain people where it hurts and will haunt them for some time afterwards. It may not be completely original, but it grabs you by the throat and refuses to let go, battering you all the while with imagery and anxiety in a twisted, surreal drug-fugue of remarkably singular obsession.
Powerful and hypnotic. One of the better films of 2009, Triangle would have earned itself a 9 out of 10 from me, but I just can't ignore the seemingly blatant lift from Timecrimes that it makes. But this certainly gets a very strong 8, folks.