Thursday, July 28, 2016
The Films of 2016: The Triangle
[Beware of Spoilers]
To put the matter bluntly, The Triangle (2016) may just be the Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) of found-footage horror movies.
Roger Ebert famously called that Australian horror film of the disco decade a “tantalizing puzzle” (Roger Ebert’s Movie Home Companion; 1993, page 498), and I would make the same assessment of this remarkable new genre film.
But first, The Triangle commences with the very real and very disappointing possibility that it’s going to be nothing but a poor man’s version of Ti West’s The Sacrament (2013); simply another scary movie about an isolated commune or cult. Here, there’s a commune called “Ragnarok” nestled in the mountains and wilds of Montana, and it’s the central location.
But then -- during the film’s last half hour -- matters take a hard right turn. The ensuing “twist” proves as original, unexpected, and unconventional as anything I have encountered in a horror movie since I began blogging twelve years ago.
What could have easily been a two-dimensional movie about an evil cult instead graduates to the realm of…something else.
How should I put this succinctly?
Not since the aforementioned Picnic at Hanging Rock have I encountered a film that so thoroughly immerses me in its mystery that I actually felt like I was witnessing, with my own eyes, a legitimate paranormal or supernatural event.
That’s precisely the feeling that The Triangle encourages and provokes, largely through its cinema-verite approach and expert editing and performances. Watching the film, you feel you are watching real life unfold before you.
And after being lulled into the routine and reality of Ragnarok, the intrusion of the unexpected -- the irrational -- strikes the audience like an electrical shock.
All along, audiences will be expecting answers about the cult, an explanation of the troubles roiling underneath it. What they get instead is not a story of good and evil systems of government or community, but rather a reckoning about human existence, and a terrifying mystery regarding it.
This is a movie about the order of the universe itself, and the way that man -- consciously, sub-consciously, or unconsciously -- adheres to that order.
“Why are you guys not worried?”
After receiving a postcard requesting help from a friend, Nathaniel, documentary filmmaker Adam Stilwell (himself) and three other filmmakers head to Winnett Montana, and Nathaniel’s commune, Ragnarok.
There, in the mountains, they find Ragnarok, where tents and yurts are arranged on a parcel of flat land called “The Triangle.” At first, they find the inhabitants wary of them, even though the leader of the commune, Rizzo, greets them with open arms.
The filmmakers stay at the commune for three weeks, and worry that they are witnessing a cult, not merely an alternate form of community. But as the days pass and the filmmakers get to know the people, a bond forms between the documentary-makers and the denizens of Ragnarok.
And then something strange starts to occur. Some people at the commune begin to exhibit signs of a strange sickness. And worse, that sickness seems to be caused by the presence of something in a cave nearby; a cave that the filmmakers have been forbidden from entering.
“The things that make us comfortable sometimes make us too comfortable.”
The Triangle derives much of its energy from its method, or stylistic approach. It is a film of the cinema verite school, meaning that the presence of the camera is always acknowledged -- sometimes in a confrontational way -- and that the lens captures life unfolding.
In films of this type, sometimes called observational cinema, issues such as focus aren’t always immediately addressed or corrected, and shots eschew the standards of third-person cinema to suggest spontaneity. Sometimes, the editing adopts a non-traditional approach because, typically, documentaries have more footage than they can reasonably expect to include in a feature length effort. Thus, split or multiple screens may be featured, as well as “B” rolls.
The filmmakers behind The Triangle have exceptional eyes for detail. The opening driving scene (a staple of the found footage format) is enlivened, for example, by the aforementioned split-screens and fast-motion photography, before the action settles down in Winnet, on Friday the 13th, 2012, no less.
That day is a bad omen, of course, if you happen to be superstitious.
Once in town, the filmmakers stop at a bar and see a T-shirt displayed there that reads “Fuck Obama.” On the bar menu: Freedom Fries.
These little details reveal a lot about the town -- and the state of the human race -- and form the starting point for our mysterious journey. These images tell us about the world we inhabit today, its vulgarity and pettiness. It is a world that some people are very, very tired of contending with.
Once at the Triangle, the film grows truly intriguing as the filmmakers document every aspect of life in Ragnarok, from preparing meals to taking a shit.
A series of “talking head” interviews are interspersed with shots of daily activity, and they introduce the denizens of the Triangle. These folks don’t look like “real” actors, and don’t present that way, either. Instead, they seem like real people. There’s a character, for instance, who discusses “the cage of words,” and refutes the idea that Ragnarok is a cult…because cults feature “a unified belief system.”
The folks at Ragnarok, by contrast, have “no answers for the unknown.” That line mirrors the movie’s approach. It also offers no answers for the unknown.
The film’s camera approach -- that adoption of cinema verite standards -- proves immersive and intriguing, but the great quality about The Triangle is the way that the camera observes little things which, at first blush, don’t seem important, or go unnoticed. On the way to the commune for instance, Rizzo warns the filmmakers that the cave in the distance is off-limits.
Later, the camera watches as some people grow ill, inexplicably. At first, the water is suspected. It could be contaminated. But not everyone who drank it has gotten sick. The more we learn, the more it seems something more insidious seems to be at work.
And then, at the end of the film, an unmanned camera filming the distant cave in long shot captures an important event. It is out-of-focus, blurry, and so we get a sense of it, but not the details of it.
In other words, The Triangle fosters a deep sense of ambiguity about its central mystery, let alone what it means. I don’t want to give away any pertinent details, but the film’s central mystery may involve: a.) time travel, b.) predestination, c.) teleportation, or d.) all of the above.
Consider: the film concerns a group of people who strike off and leave modern civilization. They form a community in the mountains and learn to live off the grid, with no modern conveniences. We see them as an offshoot, or byproduct of modernity. They have left behind the world of “Fuck Obama” and “Freedom Fries.”
But is it possible, given what happens in that cave in the denouement -- and what is discovered there -- that their role in history is a far different one?
Are they, in fact part of an inexplicable paradox, both the originators of mankind, and the latest generation of the species?
The great thing about The Triangle is that any such explanation is merely a “cage of words,” and the film hints at a mystery greater than anything our minds can conceive or understand.
It offers no real answers.
But that’s okay. I’d rather have clues that I can speculate about, and that’s exactly what The Triangle provides.
Go in expecting no answers. That way you won't feel let down. And, the film's finale is mind-blowing. The climax will stay with you the way that the end of Picnic at Hanging Rock does.
The Triangle takes us out of the world that makes us “too comfortable,” one might conclude, and in our current Hollywood environment of film-making by committee, that's a great gift.