Having all of the money in the world can solve just about any problem. But no matter the vast wealth some may accumulate over the course of their lives, they can’t take it with them – it stays put, waiting for the next person to accumulate the remains. In Ruben Östlund’s English language feature debut Triangle of Sadness, money becomes the films McGuffin, all the characters have it, some more than others and Östlund uses this as a means to push his story forward from point A to point B having the wealth loom over the film in the background but its presence never once disappearing as the progression changes from one chapter to the next.
With money being a central element that brings characters together, Östlund uses the 1% to his advantage, showcasing how shallow, superficial and unaware these wealthy people are regarding their surroundings. Price tags don’t exist in this world – anything and anyone can be bought for the right price. And money can influence and manipulate people to do things they are uncomfortable with. Regardless how large a sum the tip may be. Östlund who also wrote the screenplay in addition to co-editing the film and directing approaches his microscopic look into these wealthy types with a sense of humor behind the name brands, blank checks and rivers of champagne and wine on demand.
With the veil peeled back, these characters have very little to offer when money doesn’t matter. Told in 3 chapters, Östlund’s script is at its most piercing in chapter 3, stripping the wealthy façade away and humanizing its once dull and boring characters. Chapter 1 introduces us to Yaya (Charlbi Dean), and Carl (Harris Dickinson). Yaya is a successful model and social media influencer while Carl goes to auditions with dozens of other guys with the same body type and facial bone structures. As a male model, Carl makes a significant amount less than Yaya and she uses that to her advantage.
Therein lies the beauty of Triangle of Sadness’s script – Östlund humanizes his out of reach characters. No matter how much money a couple may have, it’s always a sensitive topic and a touchy subject to talk about. When we first meet Yaya and Carl, the two have just finished an expensive meal where Yaya’s card is declined but she still forces Carl to pick up the tab, playing the damsel in distress, manipulating Carl into the gender roles he so desperately is against.
“I just want us to be friends” he declares to Yaya as their lovers spout moves into its climactic moments.
In a sense, Carl represents the viewer watching Östlund’s film, he’s the middle and working class. He doesn’t make much money comparatively, he’s a tourist that gets invited to exclusive events because of who he’s dating. And as someone who doesn’t have the wealth that others may have, Carl will do whatever it takes to survive and live comfortably. Harris Dickinson emits the look of disgust and outright uncomfortableness whenever he has to compromise his morals – it’s all in his face and the conflict is used to his performances advantage.
Chapter 2 takes the film to an exclusive yacht cruise where the out of touch wealthy out do themselves with every passing moment. Östlund uses a running gag that fits right into the jigsaw he creates. One guest complains about how filthy the sails are whenever she is sunbathing but to Captain Thomas (Woody Harrelson), the thought of disagreeing with the people who fund his drinking habit is wrong. The yacht is completely motorized, there are no dirty sails to be cleaned but common sense seems to allude this group.
During this chapter is when Triangle of Sadness fully commits to the satirical nature Östlund was headed toward. Triangle is not for the squeamish, nor those prone to motion sickness or weaker stomachs. I’ll admit during the sequence that can only be described as a barrage of bodily fluids flying through the air during a harrowing storm, I felt the queasy sensation stirring up in my stomach. It’s the longest running sequence Östlund undertakes and every bit of it is fascinating and tragic. All the while, the staff is prompting guests to drink wine and eat the current course of the 7 course Captain’s dinner to curb the sickness in the hopes that it doesn’t come.
But the vomit flows, some in slow motion, some in the fancy food dishes and others never stopping in a perpetual state of discomfort.
Putting the viewer right in the middle of the action is cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel who creates an experience we all would like to never happen in public or private. Set up for failure from the beginning, once the first domino falls, the chaos that follows has to be seen to be believed. During this dinner for the ages, Yaya and Carl strike up a conversation with Clementine (Amanda Walker) and her husband Winston (Oliver Ford Davies). It’s learned what this couple did to earn their fortune and Östlund strikes the nail in the coffin with his take on the social structure and what the desperate will do to survive and profit. They are their own worst enemy – oblivious to how their business may affect humanity.
Chapter 3 follows immediately after the previous night’s panic inducing disaster. Set on a beach, it’s the characters that are so revered on the ship that have every need and want met who become powerless. Triangle of Sadness becomes Cast Away only, the necessities to survive are lost on just about everyone except for the toilet manager Abigail (Dolly de Leon). Quickly becoming the crutch for everyone’s survival, Östlund shatters expectation but doesn’t spend the lengthy runtime exploring the ideas he sets up. Both chapters 2 and 3 overstay their welcome, loosening Östlund’s grip on his film.
The irony of it all is there, the question is does the same message have to be repeated over and over just in different settings.
If anything else, Triangle of Sadness provides a serviceable distaste for the wealthiest class in their aloofness. Written with a sharp tongue, Östlund’s bark is bigger than his bite. There comes a point during the near 3-hour film that the point is being shoved in our faces as if we’re to blindly agree with the allegorical message of classism and how its viewed around the world. The minority characters, the workers are accused of crossing boundaries but it’s the wealthy that can’t get past their overindulgence for control of a broken system that only benefits them. Featuring genuinely funny moments amidst an uncomfortable atmosphere, Triangle of Sadness is as divisive as it gets – you’re either on board with the themes and specific messages Östlund is going for, or it’s a complete turn off that goes from bad to worse. There is no in between.
Screenplay By: Ruben Östlund
Directed By: Ruben Östlund
Music By: Mikkel Maltha & Leslie Ming
Cinematography: Fredrik Wenzel
Starring: Harris Dickinson, Charlbi Dean, Dolly de Leon, Zlatko Burić, Iris Berben, Vicki Berlin, Henrik Dorsin, Amanda Walker, Oliver Ford Davies, Sunnyi Melles, Woody Harrelson
Edited By: Mikel Cee Karlsson & Ruben Östlund
Release Date: October 7, 2022
Running Time: 2 Hours 27 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 72%