Mindf*ck Double Feature Review: Triangle (2009) and Coherence (2013)

This particular double feature consists of two mind-benders that utilize aspects of time displacement and multiverses to fashion some unsettling narratives that effectively creep the viewer out while also exercising the parts of our brains that like to pretend we sort of understand quantum mechanics.

The first movie I want to discuss is the 2009 British-Australian co-production Triangle, written and directed by Christopher Smith. The film starts out as a fairly straightforward “disaster at sea” film that very quickly goes off in some mighty strange directions.

Melissa George plays Jess, a woman with an autistic son named Tommy (Joshua McIvor). She has apparently made plans to go sailing with her friend/potential love interest Greg (Michael Dorman) and some other buddies of his, but when she arrives at the harbor prior to setting sail, Greg finds it strange that Tommy is not with her, and that she seems a little out of it. She explains that Tommy is at school, which strikes everyone as a tad odd, since it’s Saturday, but the weirdness is soon smoothed over and the friends venture forth into the briny.

Not long into the journey, however, a bizarre distress signal comes over the radio, and then a freak storm causes the sailboat to capsize. One of the friends, Heather (Emma Lung) is seemingly swept away and drowns, but the others manage to climb aboard the overturned hull of the sailboat. Luckily for them, or so it appears, a cruise liner soon happens by, and the survivors rejoice, even though there seems to be no answer to their calls for help, other than a brief glimpse of one shadowy person, far up on the deck. Regardless, rescue is rescue, and the friends pull up alongside the ship and climb aboard.

Eerily, though, the entire cruise liner appears to be deserted, even though the ballroom contains a table laden down with fresh food. As the confused protagonists search the ship for any sign of human habitation, creepy little details conspire to throw off the viewer. Jess thinks she sees or hears someone walking around, leading her to believe that maybe Heather survived and boarded the ship before them. She also has an intense feeling of déjà vu and seems to know where all the corridors on the ship lead. And most disconcertingly, the gang finds Jess’s keys lying on the ground in a part of the ship which they had not yet explored.

As the investigation continues, not only does the gang discover a message telling them to go to the ballroom, written on a mirror in blood, but later on, the group is set upon by a murderous person in a burlap sack mask who begins picking them off one by one. In a perplexing twist, Greg is shot, but tells the others that Jess was the one who shot him, even though she has no idea what he’s talking about. Incidents continue along this line until the viewer begins to get some handle on what’s happening on this disquietingly abandoned ship.

In essence, Jess and the others have unwittingly become involved in some sort of time loop from which they seemingly cannot escape. The situation they find themselves in is an interesting mirror of a statement that Jess made early in the film about her son Tommy, whose autism often manifests itself as a rigid adherence to routine from which any deviance causes intense emotional distress. The story of Sisyphus also seems a touchstone, as Jess desperately tries to vary the script each and every go-around in a futile attempt to change the outcome and get herself and her friends out of the loop, which has alarmingly been going on for far longer than the movie first led you to believe, and likely began far before the audience was aware of it.

I didn’t have any idea where this movie was going when I first started watching it, so as it got weirder and weirder I became more and more invested and intrigued. The scenes of Jess trying to “vary the program” and still getting the same results were particularly wrenching, as they spoke to the hopelessness of her situation, intimating that whatever choices she made would lead to the exact same result, a bleak narrative by any stretch of the imagination, but one that worked brilliantly in the context of the story, particularly in light of the revelations at the end of what had really happened to her son Tommy and why perhaps this existential Möbius strip had ensnared her in its deadly clutches in the first place.

It was a mindfuck for sure, but I would recommend it to fans of stuff like Donnie Darko or Memento. It’s not a standard horror movie, but the implications of it were terrifying, in my opinion, and it kept the intensity up through the entire runtime. Good stuff.

Another film that uses a similar concept to even greater effect is the 2013 scifi/horror movie Coherence, the feature film directorial debut of James Ward Byrkit, who was previously best known as the concept artist on the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies. This amazing film just goes to show what a talented individual can do with nothing but a stellar concept and a group of equally gifted improv actors.

Shot over five days in Byrkit’s house with a nothing budget, no crew, and essentially no script, Coherence is the tale of a dinner party gone astronomically awry. Eight friends converge at the home of one of the couples, and proceed to drink wine, shoot the shit, and talk over one another in a delightfully naturalistic way. At first, there is little indication that anything is amiss, other than a few brief mentions of a comet that is passing unusually close to Earth that night, and the fact that there might be some anomalies occurring in its wake. There is seemingly one minor incident early on in the party, when the glass on the cell phone belonging to main character Emily (Emily Baldoni) cracks for no reason, as does the phone belonging to one of the other guests, Hugh (Hugo Armstrong), whose brother is a physicist and has given him the heads-up that some weird shit might be happening overnight on account of the comet.

The get-together is progressing in a normal enough way, with relationship drama and angst seething just under the surface of the pleasant conversation, but then the power winks out. Startled but not particularly alarmed, the friends note that the entire street has gone dark, save for one other house a couple of blocks away, which is still merrily lit up. Thinking that perhaps this other house might still have a working phone or internet connection, a couple of the friends decide to trek over to the lit-up house and see what’s what.

This is where things begin to go wildly off the rails. When the two intrepid explorers return, they not only inform the party that the other house is essentially a mirror image of the one they are in, complete with other versions of themselves, but they further reveal that they have stolen a metal box from the other house, which contains several random items, as well as photographs of all the people at the party, with apparently meaningless numbers written on the back.

The guests have no idea what to make of all this, but over the course of the story, the protagonists and the viewer come to realize that the comet has caused a sort of rift in the multiverse, and that there is now at least one other house (and perhaps an infinity of other houses) containing alternate-universe versions of all the party guests, and that there is (at first) no way to tell which people were in the house originally and which ones are “imposters” from one of the other (similar but slightly different) universes.

Somewhere in the neighborhood, there has sprung up a “dark zone,” which seems to be a way station between the realities, and as switcheroos occur, paranoia begins to set in: this character had a cloth Band-Aid on his head when he left, but now it’s a plastic one. That character has a red glow stick when all the “original” group had blue ones. Some of the characters begin to panic, either thinking they’ve been dosed by the one woman who brought ketamine to the party, while others start coming up with extreme ideas about what they should do about their counterparts in the other dimensions, and if there is any possible way they could get “stuck” in a reality that they didn’t start out in.

When I read about how this movie was made, I admit I almost couldn’t believe it. Though director James Ward Byrkit spent more than a year laying out all the plot points and twists and making elaborate charts of how this complicated story was going to play out, in the end he wanted the performances of the actors to be as believable as possible. So he recruited friends and acquaintances of his who didn’t know each other but were known to be accomplished at improvisation. Byrkit deliberately did not tell the actors what the movie was about, but simply gave them each a single page of notes on each day of shooting, which told them what their character was supposed to do that day, but little else. So all of the reactions of the characters you see in the film are completely genuine, as none of them had any idea what notes the others had been given, or indeed what the outcome of the story was ultimately going to be.

This approach gives the movie a real immediacy and realism, as the characters make a completely natural progression from jokey disbelief to paranoid terror as the bizarre events unfold. I found the whole thing completely enthralling from start to finish, as the creepy incidents began to pile up and the implications of the time rift began to bear fruit. The fact that the entire film is set in a couple of rooms is utterly incredible, given how vast the story seems in its mechanics, and that is a testament to the prodigious talent of its director. A definite winner, and one that has earned many well-deserved awards since its 2013 release.

I would recommend this to fans of “dinner party horror,” particularly a film like The Invitation, which bears a superficial resemblance to Coherence, at least in its set-up and the slow building of tension. Also recommended for fans of The Twilight Zone, and the 2004 movie Primer. Check it out; you won’t be disappointed.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s