Why You'll Never Solve the Triangle
The film is Triangle, a 2009 surreal thriller which I discovered recently on 366WeirdMovies. Let's at least trot out a trailer:
Because talking about this kind of movie tends to get me in hot water with the Internet, I will include the disclaimer up front:
I! LOVE! THIS! MOVIE!!! It is a master work of art, and I think you should go see it too, because it is something fresh, original, challenging, and thought-provoking. It is definitely an obscure indie production which deserves to be more famous than it is. Regardless of whether you think the plot or story or ending is satisfying, the production is tight, the acting is great, the story is mind-blowing, and it's definitely going to stick with you longer than Superhero Summer Sequel 13-1/2: Spidey Irons His Underwear.
We clear? Crystal?
And before I get to the point, from here on down I'll throw out SPOILER ALERT!
DO NOT READ if you haven't seen this film yet. Triangle is an almost unknown indie production a few years old, which means it shouldn't be hard to track down on Netflix, Hulu, Crackle, or even the odd YouTube appearance. Heck, buy it so you can own it. The producers deserve that much.
Now then, we can finally get to the point of this article:
The structure and story of Triangle has a lot in common with films like 2000's Momento, 2004's Primer, and 2001's Mulholland Drive: it has a tendency to attract various theories of interpretation, on every point in the credibility spectrum from English Professor to Cornball. Like Primer, fans like to draw up charts and timelines and hang some elaborate theory on them. Here's one and here's another, and now I'll give you my theory (sort of) and then you all get to have fun giving me yours.
Now, unlike Primer, the makers of Triangle had a far better idea of how to do this. They did their homework, edited their story, and made sure that everything hangs together without having to muddle things up with half an hour of Radio-Shack-babble. The story plays out with your eyes wide open; nothing is left to chance. Even the most minute detail fits into the narrative, and yet all of the details can be interpreted multiple ways.
In brief: Jess is a single mom hopping a cruise with five friends for a fun day on a sailboat. They stall when the wind dies out and then a storm swamps the boat; one crew member is lost and presumably dead. The five survivors are stranded on their capsized boat until a ghost steamer shows up, whereby the group promptly stows away onboard. The ship at first seems as deserted as the Mary Celeste, but the group gets mysteriously killed off one by one, leaving only Jess. However, a new capsized sailboat appears with all five survivors on board for Jess to encounter, including a fresh copy of herself. A time loop paradox has apparently triggered some sort of universal Xerox machine; Jess is doomed to keep acting out the same time period over and over again unless she figures out a way to break the cycle. The whole cycle is going to turn out to revolve around Jess, who has a far more active role in the festivities than we thought.
TL;DR: Friday the 13th meets Groundhog Day. Or the Philadelphia Experiment meets Gilligan's Island.
Now, then, some clues to why this film can't be solved easily:
- As I'll expand below, there are many, many more pieces to the puzzle that we are not completely shown.
- The title alone has three meanings: The name of the sailboat is Triangle, the incidents are implied to bear resemblance to mysterious disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle, and there is a sort of love triangle set up between Jess, Greg the captain (who have eyes for each other), and Heather (who was supposed to be set up by matchmaker Sally for Greg).
- There's big obvious references to Greek mythology, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and the odd tot of supernatural shenanigans tossed in. We are given nothing to either discredit or confirm the notion that any of this might be a modern retelling of the story of Sisyphus, Jess' personal hell after dying, a hallucination, a dream, or what-the-hell-aliens for that matter.
Quite a few attempts to interpret the story make the following mistakes which are easily corrected upon careful examination of the details:
MYTH: It's a closed time loop.
We only get shown anywhere between four to seven cycles of the loop, and maybe more. But several scenes show us that this has happened much more than a few times. The room where Jess finds the notes has dozens of notes on the floor, the grating where Jess drops her locket has a pile of identical lockets, and the landing where Sally dies has what looks like about fifty dead Sallys piled up there. Even the ditch where Jess pitches the unlucky seagull at the end has a pile of dead seagulls, showing that she's gotten off the boat several times before.
POSSIBLE MYTH: Jess has amnesia.
Through the events at the beginning, Jess seems to have memory problems. She can't quite place the ship but remarks about deja vu, has a dream about the part where she wakes up on the beach while she's still on the boat pre-storm, but dismisses it as a nightmare, and so on. However, consider the following:
By the end, we're shown Jess voluntarily entering the time loop again. Her goal is to repeat events up to the point where she believes things can change; these events include getting the whole group except her killed. Obviously, when she's going through the cycle umpteen times, she can't tell them all the truth, can she? She starts out trying to convince some of them of what's really going on but we see how far that strategy gets her. Instead, she mutely goes along with the charade. She even lies clearly at the beginning when she says her son Tommy is in school.
Note that even in the first half of the story, Jess seems to not be the least bit surprised at any of the events. When the wind dies and the storm comes, Jess makes one perfunctory remark to skipper Greg asking if they'd be able to get home OK - as if she were just half-heartedly reciting a line. Most importantly, at about 20 minutes in when the Aeolus first appears, Jess turns her head to look right at it, clearly knowing it was going to appear, but saying nothing, allowing Victor to spot it on his own and call it out to the others.
Now, she could still be experiencing memory problems or even just plain shock and confusion over the cycles, but we can't assume it. Even her deja vu act on board the ship could simply be the easiest lie to establish the alibi that she's in shock; she keeps trying to wander away from the group at every opportunity while being escorted back into the fold by Greg. When she finally frustrates Greg enough that he lets her wander off, she's now free to slip into her action-plan mode for the cycle.
On the plausibility side, why does she re-write herself a fresh copy of the kill-them-all note? When we see her do it, it seems like she's comparing her own handwriting. But she could be using the notes to keep track of the number of repetitions. Even the coincidence between her home address being 237 and the cabin 237 on the boat (the bloody writing on the mirror) can be explained by this theory: she's picking the cabin because it's easiest for her to remember.
MYTH: Jess' appearances are linear in terms of her trip through one cycle of the loop.
Once again, this isn't a closed loop at all. There is at least one time, when the Jess with the bloody face shows up to lead Sally and Downey away to be killed in room 237, when we have one Jess whose point of entry and exit in the loop are left up for grabs. When we see Jess on about the third repeat looking down at two of her doubles slugging it out below and one dumping the other overboard, we have no idea where those two copies start and end.
We're also shown that sometimes events repeat and sometimes they don't. The first time Victor dies is trying to strangle Jess; the second time he just slumps over from his injuries after watching Jess hold one of her doubles at gunpoint.
Let's also point out that we have no true fix on how many times she's been through the loop by the first time we see it. The first sequence might even be from a mix of cycles. Her first few repeats might have been fraught with mistaken choices and bad assumptions. At the same time, the more experienced she grows at running this gauntlet, the more she has to keep outwitting both past and future copies of herself. So every action taken by her future selves also changes the destiny of her past selves. During the original confrontation between Jess, with the mask and shotgun, and unarmed, unmasked Jess, both of them are completely surprised by each other's actions.
MYTH: Jess dies in the car accident at the end, so it's her ghost acting it out from there.
Remember that tank-top Jess killed stained-sundress Jess, stuffed her body into a bag in the trunk of her car, and was driving this car down the road when it hit the bird and then the truck. Pay attention to when the by-standers are coming to the scene; that is the sundress Jess, complete with stain, lying outside the car along with the trunk clearly open and the bag clearly spilled on the road. Onlookers are obviously jumping to the conclusion that this was the driver killed in the accident, while the tank-top Jess stands to the side unnoticed by all but the cab-driver.
MYTH: Everything has a rational, scientific explanation.
We have all kinds of possible supernatural / paranormal hypothesis available here.
(a) the record player and the mirrors
The record player scene (and you'll never hear "Anchors Aweigh" the same way again) has Jess interrupting the record when it skips on repeat, and move the needle to previously in the song. Next, she looks in the mirror before the camera moves right through the mirror into the reflection. So the first time we encounter the reboot of the time loop, we're exactly backwards; the Aeolus is now shown from the right side of its bow instead of the left, with the capsized sailboat and group approaching from that side. Mirror-Jess, in shock, backs into the mirror-record-player, which she jolts and causes the record to skip and repeat again; we then have several jump-cuts repeating jerky little bits of action in time to the record player skipping.
Perhaps the record player controls the time loop? Are we entering into alternate mirror universes? Did we just witness several loop cycles in a few seconds?
The use of mirrors continues throughout the story. We have more mirrors here than Alfred Hitchcock filming Vertigo. Clearly, we're being given foreshadowing that there's going to be a lot of Jess' running around. Notice that only Jess is given this treatment; the others barely seem to cast reflexions at all except for Greg in the first scene in cabin 237.
(b) the clock and the fruit
While the rest of the crew have "about 11:30" as the time, both Jess' watch and the clock in the dining hall show 8:17. We get this detail prominently noted. The dining hall contains a banquet table set with fruit and the group eat from it; Victor takes an apple while Downey downs a banana. But shortly later, Jess comes back to the banquet table to find all the food black and rotten, clearly sitting there for ages; right after this is Victor's first death scene.
There goes all hope we had for linear time within the loop! Now, is time passing at a faster pace on board the ship than outside it, so the fruit rots in seconds? Are both Jess and the ship from an earlier loop while the rest of the group is already from a later loop? Does the time difference mean that the loop takes some two hours and thirteen minutes to complete one cycle?
Another detail frequently pointed out is that the clock in Jess' home shows the time of 8:17 too; the exact time her double charges through the door to ax-murder her and take her place. What to make of this then? This actually feels like a red herring detail just tossed in to mess with us.
(c) the birds
Along with the endless echoing hall of mirrors, we also borrow a Hitchcockian amount of seagulls. Not only is the The Rime of the Ancient Mariner heavily invoked, but the seagulls just tend to follow Jess around. She has a painting of seagulls on a wall in her home (we see this when tank-top Jess is carrying the ax into stained-sundress Jess' home), seagulls follow her all along her adventures at sea, and a seagull smacks into her windshield at the end, triggering her re-entry on the sailboat.
So, do the birds play some magical role? Are they responsible for guiding her into the loop again even if she tries to escape? Are they truly a stand-in for the Ancient Mariner's albatross? In fact, Coleridge's poem even goes into the cast meeting on a ghost ship with just a pale woman and death on board. Alright, we get it, you don't have to yell.
(d) the accident and the cab driver
The cab driver is definitely a final mythic element tying the supernatural theme together. The cab driver can be taken for Charon from Greek mythology, ferrying the dead to the netherworld, which makes Jess Sisyphus and the cursed ship her eternal hill to roll her eternal stone. The legend that Sisyphus was punished for breaking a promise to Charon is even spoken out loud in the script; later Jess breaks her promise to come back to the cab driver. Again, this is painted too boldly not to draw significant lines around the intended interpretation of the story.
(e) the band and the drum
Aaaaand finally, at the bird death / car accident scene, the marching band in the background is playing "Anchors Aweigh" - and post-crash, one of the band members has set down the drum - and it has the "AO" logo, the same one that's on the drum on the band stage back on the ship!
We'd try to theorize this one, but our heads just exploded.
So here we are!
It's a hell of an intriguing flick! One of those films where you can't help but re-watch it, picking out the details and noticing connections for the first time. More movies should be like this. If you want to make up your own meanings, don't let me spoil your fun. If you want a scientific explanation, there's one to tease out. If you want a supernatural explanation, that framework is also ready. It's a build-your-own-meaning film, done right for a change.
You see, Primer? This is how it's done.