Sunday, September 19, 2010

Triangle: Lost, At Sea

The phrase "at sea" sometimes means that you're actually out on the water, sometimes it means you're unsure or uncertain of what's going on. In Triangle, everyone - protagonists and viewers alike - is at sea. Just when things begin to cohere, we are upended again to fine effect.

The movie wrong-foots us right away: We open on a distraught mother comforting her child, telling him it's all going to be okay and it was just a bad dream. So there isn't even a pretense of everything being okay. Even though it appears to be a jump forward, that strong image lingers through the more mundane proceedings that follow, as we watch a calmer version of the mother go about her day. The sunshine, the green grass, the lawn sprinkler, all of it is suffused with dread, much like the over-bright, over-clean imagery in Blue Velvet. Everything's a little off. We know it won't last.

This skewed feeling isn't helped any by the editing, which is jumpy and fragmentary. Lots of isolated instances of activity but little sense of transition between them. Mother is taking down the laundry, then mother is cleaning a spill off the floor and being upset when it gets on her dress, then mother is packing the car, then mother is gathering up her son. There's no flow to the day's events. We see things happen, but not what happens in between. The doorbell rings, but nobody is there. Mother and son leave.

We cut to a group of people preparing for a sailing trip. Greg owns the boat, Victor's a young man Greg has taken on, Downey is a high school friend of Greg's, Sally is his wife, and Heather is a nice young woman Sally brought along to try and set up with Greg, who she thinks needs a lady friend. Greg is angry that they brought Heather along, but it's not clear why. There's tension in the air, and it only increases when the mother we met in the opening credits comes aboard. Her name is Jess, Sally appears really unhappy to see her, and her son isn't with her. She tells Victor that her son is "in school." It's a Saturday. She looks distracted, haunted almost. The boat gets underway.

It's an otherwise uneventful journey as we learn more about each person on the boat, but as is always the case in boat trips in horror movies, something goes awry.  Jess has a nightmare - she's lying on a beach, watching the sand crabs. She is white as a sheet, no light in her eyes. Foreshadowing? The boat becomes suddenly becalmed. They receive a faint, staticky distress call…a voice says "they're all dead." Jess is worried about getting back to her son in time, but Greg assures her their backup engines can get them back. They can't, however, outrun the whopper of an electrical storm that wipes out the boat.

So we've got a boatful of people with secrets and weird tension stranded in the middle of the ocean on the wreckage of their boat (minus Heather, who was lost at sea during the storm), and this is when the 1930s-era luxury liner comes steaming out of the mist, pulling alongside the wreckage, allowing them to board. The pristine luxury liner with no visible passengers or crew. Pretty much the floating equivalent of the Overlook Hotel. Shots spin around identical, mazelike ships' corridors, we follow the protagonists in one direction, only to cut to an entirely different direction. We are dislocated in space as much now as we were dislocated in time at the beginning of the movie. 

Soon, even causality begins to break down as people attack each other, accuse each other of things they didn't do, and find themselves stalked by shadowy figures. The simmering tension suddenly erupts, and even as the viewer starts to put the pieces together, the truth of the situation reveals its horror in bits, in sudden discoveries. It's a violent movie in places, and it escalates, but it isn't gratuitous. By the time the denouement comes, we know enough to know what to look for, and every odd piece falls into place. Triangle is a smart, restrained horror story, one which rewards careful observation and understanding. Like the best of Brad Anderson's work, the whole story is both more personal and more awful than we might have thought at first, and as a result, the viewer is left feeling more sad at the end of the journey than relieved. At the end of the day, nobody escapes. What washes ashore is carried back to sea.

IMDB entry
Purchase on
Available on Netflix

Monday, September 6, 2010

Some Slight Changes To The Blog

Just a couple of things:

* At the end of each post, I've added links to IMDB for each movie, as well as and Netflix when feasible. Not all of them are equally available, but I'll add caveats and alternate information (e.g., release dates) where I can.

Just a warning: IMDB entries will sometimes spoil things more than I try to. Also, don't read the message board for any film on IMDB unless you want your eyes to boil out of your head Raiders Of The Lost Ark style.

* I'm also going to implement a tag system that is intended to straddle the line between useful for narrowing down posts into sub-categories and attempts at amusing designations that will help what I'm viewing as sometimes overly serious and high-minded writing on my part. Although they don't update as much as they used to, I've always thought Metal Inquisition had the right idea about tags: They should categorize stuff and be funny enough on their own that a list of them is fun to read.

Thanks for reading and for the feedback - it's much appreciated.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Martyrs: The New Passion Play

Perhaps as a reaction to the uproar over movies like Antichrist and Srpski Film, I've been thinking a lot lately about the relationship of morality to horror film. I'm eventually going to spend a whole post rooting around in these ideas, and as I've been shaping it in my head, I've also started thinking about the relationship between horror films and fables and how  in the U.S., our fables and fairytales have been shaped (and changed) by a largely Christian morality that eschews ambiguity for certainty, for the happy (or at least instructive) ending.

Our horror films do much the same thing. This gets me to thinking about the instructiveness of tragedy or a more existential (if less comforting) take on the genre. Maybe it's this Western sensibility that inures us to shitloads of gore but gets us all up in arms if violence or suffering is presented without ironic distance. We need our happy endings, the wicked punished and the good triumphant.

But that's at least another post if not two. I also think about how horror movies spend a lot of time on the figures of the Christian pantheon - Satan, demons, rogue angels, etc. (still waiting for a big-budget adaptation of the Book of Revelation) - but not so much the church itself. Sure, there's the occasional renegade priest or church built atop a site of evil or whatever, but not so much the church as it actually has operated. The Passion of the Christ was way, way gorier than Hostel (and predated it by a year, making it the first torture porn film), and the Bible itself is filled with all kinds of awful stuff, presumably meant to be a cautionary tale. The Passion Play began as a folk reenactment of the trial, suffering, sacrifice, and transcendence of Jesus of Nazareth, and few details were spared, lest we underestimate the magnitude of what he did for others.

This has more to do with Martyrs than you might think.

The movie opens with a young girl running through what appears to be an abandoned warehouse. She is bloody, bruised, running out into the street barefoot and screaming. This cuts to grainy documentary footage of people exploring the abandoned building she escaped, pointing out where she was kept. She wasn't raped, but she was abused, chained to a toilet chair, beaten and starved. Nobody knows why, the girl (Lucie) won't say anything.

Lucie grows up in an orphanage, and through the documentary footage we see her grow. She starts almost feral, but over time the care and attention of another girl named Anna, she starts to come out of her shell. The heads of the orphanage want to find the people who tortured Lucie, but her memory isn't good. Anna may be the only friend she has - Lucie tells her what she can remember (which is very little), but makes Anna promise to keep some things secret.  She tells Anna not to say anything about the deep cuts that keep appearing on her arms…

…or the shadowy, emaciated figure who comes to her in the night and makes them.

We flash forward 15 years later, and a suburban family of four are sitting down to breakfast, squabbling about school and potential boyfriends and the torments siblings afflict on each other. The squealing daughter is being chased by the brother in a domestic parody of the movie's opening. Mother repairs a pipe in the backyard, father answers the door.

Lucie is standing there with a shotgun.

What follows is essentially the story of what we are willing to do for (and to) other people, and what happens when we stop running. Lucie runs from her captors, runs from the withered phantom who haunts and hurts her, runs until she can no longer run. Anna runs from what Lucie is, whether she intends to or not, until Lucie calls her for help and she answers, tending to Lucie's wounds, stitching up repeatedly scarred flesh. She's all Lucie has. Lucie has done something terrible, and terrible things keep happening to Lucie. Something follows her around, and at a certain point we begin to wonder how stable Lucie is and what loyalty is going to cost Anna.

Martyrs has a very specific story to tell, but does an excellent job of keeping us guessing. Who kept Lucie captive? Was it for her own good? By what is Lucie haunted? What connection does it have to her? How far will Anna go to protect her friend? How far will she go to protect everyone else? The answers aren't always obvious, and the less you know about the movie going in, the better.  At the end of the day, all of the blood and scars and wounds and suffering are, surprisingly, with great, ancient purpose. Transcendence through ordeal. It is a painful story told in splashes of red, sharp metal, harsh, unforgiving light, and the fist's hard report against flesh. Like the story of Jesus, it ends in salvation even if we can argue about whose salvation it is.

It is a rare movie that shows us something horrible and asks us to find something noble in it. Martyrs is one of the best attempts in my recent memory. It is a passion play for the modern age.

IMDB entry
Purchase from
Available on Netflix