Triangle of Sadness (2022): Best Picture Nominee | Movie Review

Few Best Picture nominees have ever been as polarizing and divisive as Triangle of Sadness. With an obvious understanding of cinematic language, writer-director Ruben Östlund makes a film that never makes it clear for the audience where it stands on its commentary, all while delivering a layer of accessible themes on top.

Set in three different and distinct acts, the movie follows a famous model couple, Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean), as they get invited to go on a weeklong luxury yacht cruise along with dozens of ultra-wealthy elite.

Along the way, Östlund uses his premise to showcase the good and bad of different societal ideals. As the yacht employees are told to say “yes” to the rich people no matter what, we see the fallibility in pleasing everyone. And when one wealthy woman forces all the crew members to go swimming with her, we see the importance of structure, and how the perversion and subversion of designated roles will likely cause chaos.

Objective in its perspective, Triangle of Sadness also has some things to say about the trajectory of capitalism—whether you view it as an evolution or devolution. On the boat, Yaya is surrounded by people who got rich from impactful positions, such as a fertilizer tycoon or a tech genius. Yet, she is the one dubbed an “influencer” for taking pictures with pasta for Instagram (even though she never eats it because of her supposed gluten intolerance).

During the third act, after a pirate attack, several members of the cruise get stranded on an island. Here, we witness a shifted definition of importance, especially when it comes to comparing which skillsets are deemed valuable in today’s tech-centric world versus the ones from previous generations—even though the economics under which they operate haven’t changed at all.

Although it’s an obvious satire on all aspects of society, the film’s real angle, if it’s even definitive enough, will continue to be up for debate. And each viewer will perceive its message in a different way—including and especially during the final moments, which will play differently depending on your personal interpretation of the film and its characters. But it’s that openness to analysis that’s often at the core of good art.

One could easily say that the movie’s commentary and satire are a bit too blatant—even too thorough. At nearly 150 minutes, Triangle of Sadness is quite ambitious with its messages and can even become a chore to think about. Something with obvious themes shouldn’t be this laborious to get through, let alone analyze. We’re often fooled into thinking that it’s deeper than it is because of the elongated route it takes to convey such simple ideas.

Likewise, Östlund’s grasp on tension is never quite there. For such a darkly bizarre picture, nothing ever feels eerie like you’d expect it to; events just happen and we watch them happen, often passively. While I can appreciate the bleak yet comedic tone, which is handled effortlessly well, the mood just always seems to…float there. Even during the infamous vomit scene (you have to just see it to understand), nothing is anticipated for the audience. We’re never truly asked to have an emotional response to any of these scenarios. If anything, it feels as though we’re supposed to be using our brains the most. Perhaps Östlund’s lack of tension is how he’s preserving our own “triangle of sadness”—the space between your eyes that conveys your emotion.

It doesn’t help that none of these characters are truly likeable, except for Woody Harrelson as the yacht’s American-born captain and Zlatko Burić as the Russian fertilizer magnate. The two of them engage in an elongated duel of famous quotes, unaffected by the food poisoning and seasickness that plagues everyone else on the boat. As irony would have it, the American is a socialist while the Russian is a capitalist. However, they remain cordial and even form a bond during a pivotal moment in the movie.

The most interesting scene, as well as the most fun to analyze is the dinner sequence in the first act where Carl and Yaya bicker about who should foot the bill. Apparently, the night before, Yaya, who makes significantly more than Carl, said she’d pay for dinner. Yet, when the time arrives—even though it’s implied that she picked a “stuffy,” expensive restaurant—she still passive-aggressively “thanks” Carl for paying before he’s even picked up the check. This catapults them into a 15-minute debate that carries over into the taxi cab, the hotel elevator, and even their room afterwards.

While Carl is fully engaged in the argument and finding the truth and logic buried within, Yaya alternates between being glued to her phone or laughing at Carl for his exacerbation. Yaya weaponizes technology and ignorance in an attempt to manipulate the situation. Later on in the film, Harrelson’s character quotes Mark Twain who says, “Never argue with an idiot. They’ll only bring you down to their level and beat you with experience.” Some audience member may have a pre-programmed bias towards Yaya, but it’s clear that she’s bringing Carl down to her level.

It’s obvious that Östlund, in his English-language debut, is a master of setup. However, he can’t ever seem to make all three acts feel congruent. He loses Carl and Yaya, the protagonists, for a large chunk of the middle act. And then the third act is hyper focused on tying together the ambiguous themes and gets bogged down doing so. It’s here where the experience of watching the film turns into a math equation.

What’s notable, however, is the director’s personal touch on the film. Aside from his unique sense of humor, or even anti-humor or—to coin my own phrase—objective humor, Östlund has an interesting way of engaging his characters. He continuously does this thing where they will react or respond before they’re even given a prompt. For instance, someone will give a nod before the question is finished. What I initially thought was a strange editing choice, I realized later on that the director was treating the interactions like jazz music; matching the score from Mikkel Maltha and Leslie Ming, he keeps things ahead of rhythm, on the verge of rushing.

It’s not often that a film in today’s socio-political climate doesn’t choose sides, but instead shows humans as humans—albeit exaggerated ones. Triangle of Sadness thoroughly conveys how most people, rich or poor, would take advantage of a position of power if they were so lucky to hold it. Alas, Östlund’s movie isn’t about motifs so much as it is about people. Like animals in a zoo, the movie is filmed with objective portrayals of strange creatures: an American socialist, a Russian capitalist, a toilet cleaner who becomes captain, an influencer who doesn’t even partake in what she’s influencing culture with. Culture itself is a mere implication as we never see a single character who doesn’t belong in these arcane worlds being portrayed. And what’s more, no one watching in the audience would for a second wish that they were there.

Twizard Rating: 91


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