Triangle of Sadness (2022)
Director: Ruben Östlund
Screenwriter: Ruben Östlund
Starring: Harris Dickinson, Charlbi Dean, Woody Harrelson, Dolly de Leon, Zlatko Buric, Iris Berben, Vicki Berlin, Henrik Dorsin
Without a doubt, 2022 was the year of the capitalist satire. In a period defined by sardonic, tongue-in-cheek critiques of society (such as The Menu), Triangle of Sadness fit right in. It’s natural that in a world still wrestling with the repercussions of the pandemic and universal demands for improved labor conditions we would see this struggle pan out on screen. Still, though, it seems that these star-studded anti-capitalist flicks are down to a formula: we are introduced to a charming yet out-of-touch rich couple, the world is fleshed out with cartoonishly evil old money types, the power shifts, and the millionaires are forced to reckon with their bad behavior. Despite the predictable plot arc, Triangle of Sadness does manage to break away from the pack with its absurdist comedy and the impressive performances from its main cast.
The film stars Charlbi Dean as Yaya, a model and influencer, and Harris Dickinson as Carl, a model, who are coaxed into a faux relationship for increased engagement and career opportunities. The two relative newbies are largely responsible for a near-perfect first act. The jokes are punchy and the pair are perfectly out of sync. We watch them maneuver the shallow world of modeling and struggle to be kind to one another despite the circumstances. Both Dean and Dickinson embody the entitled yet strangely endearing personalities of Gen Z celebrities. Not only do the two function as stellar comedic forces, they also serve the fierceness necessary for the high fashion world.
The legacy of Triangle of Sadness is undoubtedly the bright light of Charlbi Dean. The 30-year-old South African actress tragically passed away shortly following the release of the film. Though Triangle of Sadness has its shortcomings, Charlbi Dean is a force to be reckoned with and seemed destined for stardom before her untimely death. If nothing else, the film is a tribute to her abilities as a comedic actress and certified scene-stealer.
Harrison Dickinson (Matthias & Maxime; The Souvenir: Part II) is also ready to take Hollywood by storm. He seamlessly evolves from nice-guy model to a scrappy, manipulative survivor and back again in the span of just over two hours. Dickinson proves his comedic prowess and his sheer stardom in this performance.
As the first act comes to a close, the film takes us on a seaward voyage. Though it maintains its witty humor, the second part is distinctly choppier than the first. Introducing the cast of spoiled, bizarre passengers, we luxuriate on a super yacht while roughing the tides of mounting class tension. What it lacks in tight writing, the film makes up with stunning cinematography. More than anything, the spectacular visuals establish an interesting tone that keeps us engaged in the story.
On our traverse across international waters, we are also introduced to the Marxist, luxury cruise captain Thomas, played by Woody Harrelson. While Harrelson delivers a predictably strong performance, his presence in the film can be distracting. Thomas’ communist rantings are meant to highlight the hypocrisy of the ultra-rich, but it produces an unwanted meta-paradox. As an enormous star with several decades of high-profile celebrity under his belt, Harrelson is equally as contradictory as his on-screen counterpart. It’s ironic to have an A-lister millionaire satirize a wealthy captain with morals he fails to meet.
This problem is at the heart of the film. While every big-budget satire struggles with this issue, good filmmaking and a strong script can make an audience forgive almost anything. If the writing felt tighter across all three acts, perhaps we could overlook the irony. After all, both Knives Out and Glass Onion tackle this problem with a self-aware, light-hearted tone and a willingness to turn the mirror to celebrity culture – they’re willing to make digs at their cast while understanding their limitations as films produced by Hollywood high rollers. Unfortunately, Triangle of Sadness never quite breaches this level of storytelling. Though it is effective in its comedy, the film struggles to make a coherent point beyond “rich people are bad”.
By the third act, the story begins to drag. We enter the “face the music” portion inherent to every anti-capitalist film, and beyond one major crowd-pleasing shocker it’s all pretty standard stuff. The tides have turned, the models are disheveled and unshaven, the wealthy have lost control. It would perhaps ring more cathartic if the side characters didn’t feel like buzzy internet fodder, but they do.
If you’re looking for a challenging satire that speaks truth to power, Triangle of Sadness might be a skip. However, if absurdist comedy is your jam, the film is worth the watch. While it certainly won’t make the history books as a hard-hitting piece on the state of the union, it’s a great watch as long as you’re fine with a little seasickness.