Welcome to Cutting It Close, a monthly column that tackles one of the most popular subgenres in horror: slashers. Alas, there’s a catch—we won’t be discussing the likes of Freddy Krueger, Ghostface, Jason Voorhees, or Michael Myers. No, this series will only look at those slasher movies that aren’t as iconic, yet they can hold their own for various reasons. They may not be top-tier or even popular, but, as the column title suggests, they cut it close.
By and large, slashers are known for their linear stories. The 2009 whodunit Triangle, however, isn’t so cut and dry. With Nightmare on Film Street celebrating horror’s relationship with time all this month, it comes of no surprise that Christopher Smith’s movie is on the itinerary. In this disorienting film, an ordinary day trip at sea quickly becomes an endless fight for survival. Fully knowing that terror is on the horizon, we now set sail for the Bermuda Triangle in hopes of understanding the film’s chilling mystery.
“Triangle […] has no interest in [revenge]. The massive bodycount here is the result of something else altogether.“
Stressed out parents are bound to have minor memory lapses. What Jess (Melissa George) is experiencing on this particular Saturday is more like a fugue state, though. She fully intended to take her young son Tommy with her on a boat trip, but plans changed at the last minute. The small yacht now leaves with only six passengers total. Joining Jess and her friend Greg (Michael Dorman) are Victor (Liam Hemsworth), Sally (Rachael Carpani), Downey (Henry Nixon), and Heather (Emma Lung). Soon, an isolated storm brews nearby, and an eerie distress signal over the radio — a panicked woman claims “they’re dead, they’re all dead” — foreshadows things to come. The squall capsizes the boat, leaving everyone stranded in the middle of the Atlantic. By chance, a cruise liner called the Aeolus drifts by; a faint figure is visible from the deck. Jess and the others finally board the vessel in search of help, never knowing an inescapable nightmare awaits them.
As far as tradition goes, slashers are a vehicle for routine revenge. Someone wronged in the past seeks retribution in the present. Triangle, on the other hand, has no interest in wanton wrath. The massive bodycount here is the result of something else altogether. Bit by bit, viewers learn our characters aren’t dealing with a garden variety, ruthless madman. The violence they endure is really all about someone seeking atonement.
From here on out, there will be massive spoilers.
At the core of Christopher Smith’s film lies a slow-footed, crushing story. It all starts with a single mom desperate to spend her day off doing something fun for herself. Jess shows up to the harbor in a dazed state and without her son; Greg‘s shipmate Victor finds this decision suspicious. On top of that, Sally immediately dislikes Jess for reasons unexplored. That’s a lot of judgment towards someone who was hoping to get away from her worries.
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Fast-forward to Aeolus, Jess learns why she’s been feeling so out of sorts. Her ceaseless, growing déja vu is actually a fading memory of what’s come before and what’s going to happen again. After Jess defeats the prowling, burlap-masked sniper who murdered Greg and the others, the assailant falls overboard, but not without passing on an ominous message—”You have to kill them; it’s the only way to get home.” As if things couldn’t get more complicated, Jess sees something so inconceivable in the water. Everyone, including herself, is standing on the overturned yacht and waiting to board the Aeolus. It appears our proposed final girl and the killer are one and the same.
The film’s lethal time loop is inspired by an Ancient Greek tale about the ship’s namesake, Aeolus. Sally explains that King Aeolus punished his son, Sisyphus, because he cheated death. The punishment entailed Sisyphus having to repeatedly push a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down. This mythological basis implies Jess and everyone are now being punished for escaping death during the storm. If that’s the proper explanation, where’s Heather? She’s the only one who didn’t make it to Aeolus. There’s the supplemental theory that maybe, just maybe, Heather survived and that’s why she’s not part of the time loop.
As with any respectable time loop, one is urged to fix the causal mistake until they reach the desired outcome. In this case, stopping the event altogether. The problem here is that Jess believes killing Greg and his friends is the only way she can get back home to Tommy. In a way, it is. Guilt-ridden over being away from her son, Jess complies while still trying to prevent the loop from starting over. Her efforts to break free from temporal damnation are fruitless. Whenever it comes to that confrontation between the two Jesses, the masked one falls overboard and somehow washes ashore. There, she goes home to find what may be the cause of the time loop— her double is abusing Tommy on the morning of the boat trip.
“The true origin of the time loop is absolutely devastating.”
This reality is too upsetting for the other Jess to bear, so she murders the double under the impression she’s making things right. Jess stuffs the body in her car and drives away with Tommy. Ultimately, they have a fatal collision with another vehicle. The boy doesn’t survive, and everyone at the crash confuses the dead Jess in the trunk for the driver.
Meanwhile, the other Jess, a spirit caught between two forms of existence, bears witness to her reckless behavior. Her only option is to accept a ride from a dubious taxi driver who may or may not embody Charon, Death’s ferryman. At the harbor, Jess makes a false promise to return to the taxi. Or rather, her escort to the afterlife. The time loop is consequently reset, and, like before, Jess‘ memories of the past fade away as if they were all part of some bad dream. With no recollection of what happened, Jess has doomed not only herself but also Greg and his friends.
The true origin of the time loop is absolutely devastating. Early on, viewers think Jess‘ actions, although not justified, were one of a desperate mother longing to be with her son at any cost. Instead, we find out she’s only seeking redemption because of her misdeeds—taking her frustrations out on a child before then ending his life, albeit accidentally. This betrayal is perhaps why the film is so memorable. Flipping a slasher trope on its head is one thing, but invalidating a character’s entire development is another.
The universe Christopher Smith conceives is small and fragile. We’ve no idea what’s really going on beyond the time loop and its prisoners. Shutting out the rest of the world helps us understand how deeply personal Jess‘ dilemma is what’s really at stake. To be put through the ringer, well into the teeth of time’s own version of the gallows, and then fail again and again—this kind of narrative will haunt as much as it forewarns. Melissa George’s ability to go with the emotional punches in what are essentially multiple roles is nothing short of masterly.
“Flipping a slasher trope on its head is one thing, but invalidating a character’s entire development is another.”
The script’s logic isn’t soundproof under scrutiny; the movie creates paradoxes. In the grand scheme, the rationale of the time loop is unimportant. What we have here is a masterful remix of familiar beats and devices. The reaction one feels upon seeing the film is what truly matters. People will walk away divided and unsure, but they will never forget Triangle. As for those out there who haven’t seen the movie (and still want to after reading a ton of spoilers), there’s no time like the present to experience this formidable and daring slasher.