Dolly De Leon, Harris Dickinson, and Woody Harrelson Get Swept Away in Dark Class Comedy
DIRECTOR: RUBEN ÖSTLUND/2022
Nobody likes to talk about money—at least not in words.
Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (the late Charlbi Dean) project wealth when walking on runways and smoldering for high end fragrance campaigns, but they can’t discuss finances at dinner without arguing. When they jump on a luxury cruise (free, thanks to Yaya’s influencer sponsors), they pose for Instagram and seek attention from those who paid full price for larger suites. But when their journey takes a turn for the worse, their arguments and attention take turns impossible in the land of supermodels.
Like Best Picture winner Parasite, part of the fun of Triangle of Sadness is its surprises. This Best Picture nominee is best when you know little before watching, which is why I’m making this a Choose Your Own Adventure review. Feel free to read everything now, or if you’d prefer to stay in the dark, skip the paragraphs with plot details and come back after watching the film.
(Plot details!) Dean and Dickinson are just two in the large ensemble of Triangle of Sadness. They surround themselves with fashion designers, supermodels, weapons manufacturers, fertilizer moguls, and gold diggers. Also: the help. This Bermuda Triangle homage is a treatise on how much of their world (and you know, the one we all live in) depends upon people who do the work no one wants. It takes a lot of waiters, chefs, maids, pool cleaners, and managers for a handful of people to live glamorously. When that order is disrupted, the One Percent (and if we’re being honest, the Two-Plus Percents) transform into cringe comedies of errors. They drink champagne to ease queasy stomachs, and they pack up suitcases as they snap on their life vests. (End plot details.)
Adaptation is one of the keys to success in this Palme d’Or winner, and not surprisingly, the Haves struggle to adapt when the Have Nots are no longer relegated to the background of most shots. (Only on my second watch did I realize the Have Nots are in almost every frame even if they’re not speaking.) Since class tension is both atavist and eternal, it helps that writer/director Ruben Östlund finds clever ways to literalize it. What faces do you make when modeling for Balenciaga vs. H&M? How do you barter when currency is cash vs. resources? How do you talk about your emotions and political convictions vs. live them out? It also helps when you have Woody Harrelson to literalize a debate of these philosophical questions. While his role is too small to call this a Woody Harrelson movie, he’s a perfect actor for Östlund’s dark tone—think more Hunger Games than Cheers—and his self-loathing captain may be the only character who knows he’s living in a comedy. (His response to a passenger who wants him to clean non-existent sails? Chef’s kiss.)
(Plot details!) This isn’t Captain Phillips, however—it’s Captain Abigail. If major star Harrelson’s role is smaller than you’d expect, Dolly De Leon claws out of the horizon to make hers larger than you’d ever guess. She’s a maid in the background until she arrives like a 21st century Birth of Venus and makes us wonder if people are stronger threats than storms at sea. This is my first time seeing the Filipina actress, but I hope it’s not the last time we see her dominate a screen. Without her, the open ending may not have worked. (End plot details.)
Many have compared Triangle of Sadness to the more commercial The Menu. While that dinner-turned-nightmare dark comedy does share similar social and political themes, the strength of this vacation-turned-nightmare dark comedy is it never lets its evolving characters get away from themselves. Ralph Fiennes, Nicholas Hoult, Anya Taylor-Joy, et al. are wonderful performers, but some of their characters’ motivations and choices remain so undeveloped I worry they accidentally shot an unfinished draft. Though Triangle runs about 15 minutes too long, it doesn’t sacrifice logic for laughs, which means its commentary hits harder, its character flips feel earned, and its ambiguity invites thought, not confusion. You might say Triangle of Sadness doesn’t want to talk about money either—it’s more interested in human nature.