Triangle of Sadness is social satire of the highest order. The latest film from director Ruben Östlund (Force Majeure) doesn't necessarily say anything new, but the way it depicts the mechanisms of financial inequality is enormously entertaining. If that sounds a little stuffy, rest assured, the point is partially made through an excess of vomiting. (More on that in a minute.) Provocative and button-pushing, the movie is guaranteed to make you feel something when it's over.
Carl (Where the Crawdads Sing's Harris Dickinson) is a male model in a relationship with social media influencer Yaya (Charlbi Dean). She makes more money than he does, and gets a ton of free stuff, so it rankles him that she won't pick up the check in a restaurant. Yaya's latest freebie is a cruise on a luxury yacht, filled exclusively with rich people. They're slightly out of place, yet still hold a higher station than the staff. Top level (i.e. white) employees get to serve the guests in the dining hall and by the pool. Employees of color are forced into jobs servicing rooms and cleaning toilets. The captain (Woody Harrelson), meanwhile, is a drunken lunatic.
Dynamics on the yacht are fascinating. Carl and Yaya meet a variety of colorful people, including an elderly couple who have made their fortune manufacturing hand grenades and landmines. (The payoff to that set-up is A+.) Crew members, meanwhile, are forced to cater to the often eccentric demands of the guests, including one woman's insistence that they all put their jobs on hold for half an hour to go swimming. Then the scenario grows dire, as the passengers simultaneously get food poisoning and become seasick from the storm causing the boat to violently rock. This leads to an amazing 15-minute sequence of gastrointestinal chaos, with these affluent individuals paying the price. Although intentionally gross, the event proves a great equalizer for the characters. The point is clear: It doesn't matter how rich you are, you're going to have it come out both ends if you get sick, just like anybody else.
That's the most outrageous section in Triangle of Sadness, yet also the most indicative of its satiric approach. We observe with morbid curiosity as these folks, who enjoy an elevated status in society, are gradually brought down to a more typical level. Their reactions are as hilarious as they are panicked. The film's third section builds on the idea further, completely inverting the power structure. A handful of characters get stranded on an island, where the yacht's “toilet manager” (Dolly De Leon) suddenly finds herself atop the food chain. What's gripping about this section is seeing how people change when their status is overturned. Those used to being coddled struggle; those used to doing the coddling are quick to seize control in the new order.
Because the movie is so well cast, the impact of the gradual shift is hypnotic. Östlund shrewdly takes note of how people either grow helpless or scheme to climb over others when stripped of their position in life. A constant streak of dark humor helps that theme go down in a manner that's very pleasurable to witness. Sex and food become valuable commodities. Heretofore “lowly” behaviors turn into seemingly reasonable choices. Stabbing someone else in the back? Has to be done. Nobody in the picture is the same at the end as they were in the beginning. Seeing where they land is part of the fun.
It is worth mentioning that Triangle of Sadness ends on a cliffhanger. You don't get any solid resolution about the fate of one particular character. Of course, this is entirely intentional. Östlund wants you to decide for yourself what happens next. Will your mind fill in an optimistic outcome or a pessimistic one? Spurring conversation afterward is the point. The movie makes you laugh – and, in the case of the dinner scene, gag – then sends you away with plenty to mull over. This is one of my favorite films of the year.
out of four
Triangle of Sadness is rated R for language and some sexual content. The running time is 2 hours and 27 minutes.