Take a look at any list of movies dealing with autism — we tend to get them around this time, as yesterday was World Autism Awareness Day and April is National Autism Awareness Month — and you’ll never see Christopher Smith‘s Triangle alongside such serious titles as Rain Man, Temple Grandin and the documentary Refrigerator Mothers. Maybe it’s just not well-known enough, although the terribly under-seen Snow Cake (featuring Sigourney Weaver’s greatest performance) is on those lists, and it’s even more obscure. The problem for Triangle is likely to do with its autistic character getting so little screen time. The movie is not about autism or autistic persons on the surface, like those mentioned above. However, there is an argument for the whole thing being representative of an autistic mind.
Occasionally filmmakers attempt to depict disorders narratively in the form of metaphorical plots. We’ve seen one that ended up taking place completely inside the head of a man with dissociative identity disorder (aka multiple personality disorder), yet that particular movie is a little too direct in what it’s doing (I’d name it, but I guess that’d be totally spoiling it for anyone who hasn’t seen it). Triangle, on the other hand, might not even be intentionally figurative. Even for a mind-fuck mystery thriller, it’s spawned a lot of discussions and theories about what’s really going on in the story of a woman stuck in a murderous time loop during a sailing excursion, but only a few touch on the idea that there’s at least a thematic connection between the woman’s son’s affliction and the repetition of events in the story.
Without getting too much into the plot — I’ve already given away more than I knew going in, and I’ll admit that blindness was a great way to see it — Triangle begins with the woman, Jess (Melissa George), trying to wrap up some chores before heading out for some rare leisure time, and along with her we meet her autistic son, Tommy. Next we see her at the marina joining a new friend and others aboard a sailboat (called The Triangle), with Tommy apparently dropped off at school on a Saturday. We learn about the autism in conversation once they’re at sea, and Jess says that with Tommy “every day’s the same.” He likes “things a certain way, and if I do one thing differently I lose him.” That’s common for persons with autism, a need for routine sameness, and so for some reason it’s fitting that Jess winds up in a strange routine of her own.
Even if Smith means for that correlation, it’s a lot less likely that he intended for Triangle to be considered in any way significant to the issue of autism awareness. It’s really just a creatively structured bloodfest with some clever twists and reveals, including one of my favorite horror images of all time (for those who’ve seen the movie, I’ll just say it involves the character Sally). It’s a bit too silly in that regard to expect that, say, the Autism Research Institute would recognize it on their directory of movies, although they do note that of those listed “the majority do not provide an accurate description of the underlying cause of autism and may, in fact, either label a person as autistic who, given the circumstances presented, may not be, or fail to recognize the disorder and confuse it with another neurodevelopmental disorder.”
I’d love to know what they think of Triangle, though, or what anyone else with relevance to the disorder, whether they are autistic, have an autistic child or work with one thinks. Regardless of the larger metaphor’s validity and whether or not it’s representative or in fact all the kid’s fantasy, All About My Mother-style, or the result of her mental breakdown, The Shining-style, due to her inability to cope with her son’s behavior, the movie still literally deals with the difficulty of being a single parent to an autistic child, to a point that there are some real concerns about that parent’s patience and that child’s well-being. In spite of the extremity, I bet there are some viewers associated with autism who can relate to at least some of the frustration Jess exhibits in the movie.
I’m also sure there are people who’d be offended by the idea that this could be relevant to the occasion of National Autism Awareness Month. It by no means has any educational value, but by being a relatively mainstream movie involving autism, with a core audience that might not normally watch something like Temple Grandin or Snow Cake, it definitely provides awareness of the disorder and promotes tolerance of people with it. But I recommend watching it over and over this month, either way. It takes about 30 viewings to start to think you’ve got it figured out anyway.