With three films to his name, an image has started to form of Ruben Östlund as a filmmaker. His satires are broad and bawdy, using brashness to compensate for a lack of subtelty. Yet a connecting thread runs through each of his films: an eye for the bombastic that distracts from the minutia. Such is the case with Triangle of Sadness, Östlund’s newest film that recently earned him two Oscar nominations on top of a Best Picture bid (Best Director and Original Screenplay, respectively). While Sadness’ larger setpieces satirizing class relations are shocking and hysterical, he lacks an ability to write an interesting enough story to connect the film’s more excessive moments.
Instagram models Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean) receive an invite to travel on a luxury superyacht in order to promote its prestigiousness. The passengers make up the cream of the 1%, ranging from Russian oligarchs like Dimitry (Zlatko Burić) to tech billionaire like Jarmo (Henrik Dorsin). During their stay, the crew does everything they can to accommodate their spoiled, powerful guests – oftentimes completely alone, as the Captain (Woody Harrelson) has undergone an existential crisis and taken to getting drunk in his cabin. However, when things go terribly, terribly wrong, and passengers soon find themselves stranded on a desert island, it becomes abundantly clear which skills are more useful in a world without money – a situation quickly taken advantage of by abused maid Abigail (Dolly de Leon).
I almost didn’t write a review of Sadness, which I first saw back in November on a cold afternoon before a Michigan football game. Partially this is because I didn’t feel I had much to say, although admittedly this had more to do with convincing myself that there was no way this thing would be an Oscar contender, and therefore writing about it was useless. Yet as time went on, and I reflected on the film more and more, I realized that I did have something to say about the film – in fact, kind of a lot. For Triangle of Sadness left me feeling neither good nor bad, instead frustrated and disappointed, because as bad as the worst moments may have been, the good moments were really, really good.
Similar to his 2017 film The Square, Ostlünd crafts these terrific moments that force viewers to feel like they earned them by sitting through tedium, as opposed to being rewarded or blessed with their existence. So many moments stand out in Sadness’ nearly two-and-a-half hour runtime, filled with satire and humor and spite. A crew member is fired on the first day because Carl is jealous and complains. Later, a rich woman wants to feel like a good person by forcing the entire wait staff to ride on the ship’s water slide.
This humorous sequence is funny enough, yet Ostlünd doubles down on the joke, as the crew’s absence allowed all the expensive food to rot before being served to the passengers, leading to a sequence of explosive vomiting throughout the mess hall. And I won’t even share what fate belies a kindly seeming rich couple who reveal they made their money manufacturing weapons for the armies of the world. These are all terrifically funny moments, and whenever we get a sequence of this magnitude, Ostlünd executes them to perfection.
Yet in order to witness these show-stopping setpieces, we are forced to sit through the rest of the film. The moments that demonstrate characterization, or further the plot, or establish themes. And here is where Ostlünd’s Achilles’ Heel as a filmmaker come into focus. Because these sequences demonstrate just how little he has to say. Most of this film – the parts in between the big moments – is overlong, repetitive, and just plain unfunny. There’s a moment early on in the film where Carl and Yaya get into the most asinine argument that makes them both seem unlikeable and unbearable (and not even intentionally). This scene goes on for a full thirty minutes.
This seems to be Ostlünd’s modus operandi for whenever he writes himself into a corner: when it doubt, drag it out. Every scene that needs to snappily relay information and further the plot meanders about ten minutes past its expiration point. For example, Woody Harrelson’s Marxist captain, who gets drunk to deal with the pain of selling his soul to the wealthy elites. At one point, he gets drunk and starts to debate the Russian capitalist. This is a funny setup, at least on paper. And yet listening to these two slur intellectual talking points at each other for twenty minutes (I timed it!) is more tiring than it sounds.
So much of the humor is solely during the boat sequences, by the time we get to the island, and we as an audience undergo yet another massive, unearned tonal shift, it feels like everyone’s given up (except for de Leon, who we will get to in a moment). Hell, I know for a fact that Ostlünd gave up – he’s so uninterested in the little pieces and continuity that a character who’s supposed to be paralyzed changes arms halfway through the film. This is not meant as commentary, or a character choice, or some secret subplot left on the cutting room floor. Ostlünd is simply so disinterested in anything that’s not “big and shocking” that he forgot to make sure that a major character was using the same arm throughout the movie.
Still, as critical as I have been of Ostlünd’s direction and funny, but flawed screenplay, at least the actors all turn in decent enough performances. Surprisingly – or perhaps even ironically – the two best performances come not from the stacked main cast, but from a minor supporting role and a completely unknown bit part. Perhaps my favorite character in the entire film is Dorsin’s Jarmo – he’s the only character, rich or poor, that felt real, even in the film’s heightened, satiric reality. But the real discovery here is Alicia Eriksson, who plays a crew member named Alicia. You can tell the actress has worked customer service before in real life, because her efforts to placate an obnoxious, aggressive rich woman are too relatable and lived-in to be completely staged.
As for the main cast, they are all relatively competent. I’d like to be more effusive in my praise of Dickinson or the late Charlbi Dean, who both try to make these vapid models feel real and likable. Yet perhaps the more accurate term here is “serviceable” – they are solid straight men in a sea of buffoonish failsons, using their attractiveness as currency to sell a lie the audience knows is but a façade. Harrelson and Buric are both intriguing and entertaining in their obnoxious gregariousness; far more subtle, real, and interesting is Vicki Berlin’s Paula, the head of the crew who tries to maintain order in the face of chaos.
And then there’s Dolly de Leon, the film’s breakout star, and the performer who gives audiences the most to think about. Now, don’t get me wrong: de Leon is very good in the role of Abigail, who works in the lowest position in the lowest class aboard the ship (working as a maid and cleaning the guests’ rooms), and who later emerges as a dictator once stranded on the island. De Leon properly plays the role as steaming under the surface. And yet, the anger at her plight (and the delight in the shifted power dynamics) never feels as explored or earned as it should be. The film’s climax is designed to shock audiences. And yet, it’s only a shock because it feels unearned, both because of the script and because of how she plays the part. It’s not a bad performance; it’s as good as it can be under the circumstances. Yet like most of the movie, it could have been so much more.
Triangle of Sadness is a funny, yet wholly unfinished construct of a picture. As with most Östlund films, your mileage with it may vary. I’ve had two separate friends tell me it’s their favorite of the year. And even despite my harsh critique, the moments I liked in this film I really liked. It’s a funny, crass takedown of wealthy elites and of the painful pecking order of human nature.
Yet I, unfortunately, I can’t shake the feeling that this is a film that can’t get out of its own way. It’s too much a manifesto to be a comedy, yet too funny to be a manifesto. It’s a messy scattershot that will leave you laughing in the moment, yet ultimately hollow by the end. There’s nothing wrong with that, but considering the promise that’s on display, it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed.
Triangle of Sadness is now streaming on Hulu