Jess (Melissa George), a downtrodden waitress and single parent struggling to cope with the demands of an autistic son, accepts an invitation from Greg (Michael Dorman) to spent a day sailing with him and his friends. Greg is a laid-back rich guy who's a regular at Jess's diner and feels sorry for her lot in life. His equally rich but not so laid-back friends - college buddy Downey (Henry Nixon) and his parvenu wife Sally (Rachael Carpani) - aren't quite as keen on Jess, particularly Sally who's on a mission to set Greg up with her BFF Heather (Emma Lung). That Heather is more interested in reformed bad boy Victor (Liam Hemsworth), whom Greg has given a job and a second chance, doesn't go down too well with Sally. The tension is at a slow simmer. Then the wind dies, a freak electrical storm comes out of nowhere, the radio is awash with static, a strange distress signal interrupts Greg's transmission to the coastguard and things take a serious turn.
Salvation seems to appear in the shape of a hulking old 1930s liner called the Aeolus. Once on board, however, their earlier tribulations are put in the shade by the appearance of a masked figure with a shotgun intent on hunting them down. This within the first third of 'Triangle' and all traces of narrative simplicity promptly walk the plank at this point and the real fucked-up stuff gets underway.
At first glance, it seems as if writer and director Christopher Smith has the dice loaded against him from the outset: a title reminiscent of the ill-fated 1980s BBC drama series, a concept that you can imagine the Tim Robbins character in 'The Player' lapping up ("it's 'Dead Calm' meets 'Groundhog Day'!") and a deserted ocean liner setting last employed on piece of shit remake 'Ghost Ship'. Moreover, the presence of a psycho killer in a pair of overalls with a burlap sack over their head - imagine the creepy kid from 'The Orphanage' all grown up and basing his fashion choices on Michael Myers - stalking scared people down under-lit corridors presents a checklist of horror tropes familiar enough to make even the most fairweather genre fan shake their head and murmur, "Yeah, seen this before."
So it comes as a delight to report that 'Triangle' is an unqualified success. Comparisons to the movies mentioned in the last paragraph are obvious but superficial. The film 'Triangle' put me in mind of most is Christopher Nolan's modern classic 'The Prestige'. Remember those creepily effective shots of a patch of woodland, the ground littered with dozens of identical bowler hats, the context not revealed until late in the narrative? Smith conjures some similar shots but with enough of the plot revealed to freight his imagery with the full weight of implication: a proliferation of lockets containing photographs of Jess's son; a beach littered with dead seagulls; crumpled pieces of paper, each bearing the same stark message; a bulwark against which is stacked ... ah, but that'd be giving too much away.
Parenthetically, on the subject of giving too much away, don't worry if you think the trailer contains a spoiler. Sitting in the cinema, twenty minutes into the film, I was quietly congratulating myself for figuring it all out and shaking my head that the publicity department tipped me the wink in the startling but ill-chosen image of the camera panning around a gun-toting Jess to reveal that she's pointing the firearm at herself. Yup, I thought to myself, no surprises here. Five minutes later, Smith delivered the big reveal. Five minutes after that he steered the film into 'Twilight Zone' territory. And for the next hour, even though the set-up and the structure of the "loop" Jess and her friends find themselves in was made abundantly clear, the fun is in seeing where Smith goes with it, how cleverly the blanks from the initial sequence of events are filled in, and how the effects of Jess's increasingly desperate attempts to break the loop play out.
The script is one of Smith's two greatest assets. Tricksy, complex, astoundingly well thought-out, Smith worked on the script for two years - and it was time well spent. By my count, events on the liner play out across three versions, while the fragmented opening sequence at Jess's house and the marina (which contain "blind spots" not explained till the final minutes of the film) have two, possibly three, variants. I'd need to see 'Triangle' again; they may be even further levels of implications and alternatives. Damn, I'm already looking forward to the DVD coming out! Sorry: I digress. My point is, many movies which deal in specific, somewhat supernatural, concepts (the two-minutes-into-the-future premonitions of piece of shit Nicolas Cage starrer 'Next' comes to mind) use these concepts as a gimmick instead of a narrative structure and then cheerfully break all of their own rules once it's become evident the scripter has written their way into a corner (the finale of piece of shit Nicolas Cage starrer 'Next' comes to mind). Christopher Smith doesn't cheat. He sets up a carefully established structure, with its own carefully defined internal logic, and not only does he play absolutely fair, he keeps things continually intriguing and often genuinely surprising. He also pulls off the incredibly difficult trick of tying up all the loose ends by the time the ouroborus arrives back at its starting point and giving us a perspective that allows for a second go-around (in every sense of the phrase) with a new and more emotionally-charged dynamic to the events.
His other asset is Melissa George. Already something of a horror stalwart with the 'Amityville Horror' remake, 'Paradise Lost' and '30 Days of Night', she's a natural for 'Triangle'. She's also about as far removed from the stereotypical scream queen as you can get. The description "tough but vulnerable" is a cliche; actually, George's characterisation is realistic: Jess never behaves in a "movie" way. She's tough when she needs to be, when the physical and psychological expediencies of what she goes through leave her with no choice but to take drastic action. But there's always that scared, confused, desperate and yet - tapping some inner reserve of strength - resolute human being just below the surface. Melissa George has always struck me as the kind of actress who simply gets on with delivering very capable, unpretentious, unshowy performances (it is perhaps this unshowiness that makes her something of an underrated talent) and here she does some of her best work.
The rest of the cast are given less demanding roles, but acquit themselves well. Carpani succeeds in making Sally ultimately sympathetic when the character could easily have remained a one-note rich bitch. Robert Humphreys's cinematography achieves a washed-out look, often deliberately overlit in the exterior sequences, contributing greatly to the slight surreal, disconnected, almost woozy atmosphere. Christian Henson's mostly unobstrusive score also helps in this regard. All told, Christopher Smith - who made a solidly crafted debut with 'Creep', hit all the right notes in his comedy horror follow-up 'Severance' and significantly raises the bar with 'Triangle' - gives every indication of knowing exactly what he wants as a director, in terms of structure, performance, visual style, atmosphere and pacing. For my money, 'Triangle' is a cult classic in waiting.