John Hillcoat has built a career out of vivisecting archetypal models of masculinity. His films are all spiritual Westerns set just about anywhere other than the sun-scorched American frontier, sweat-stained epics of rough-and-tumble outlaws in dire straits. They radiate a very precise kind of low, rumbling intensity that’s occasionally punctuated – and accentuated – by ruthless explosions of ultra-violence so shockingly brutal as to induce whiplash.
With Triple 9, his sixth and potentially best film since The Proposition, there’s no longer any question that Hillcoat is a master at crafting these surly, male-dominated dramas. He’s a gifted director, clearly inspired by the work of Martin Scorsese (especially Goodfellas) and Michael Mann (especially Heat), but assured enough to mount multiple sequences that take big cinematic risks and work like gangbusters because of them.
And yet, too many of his films are also marred by narrative confusion and sagging midsections – Hillcoat’s efforts behind the camera are often nothing short of masterful, but in movies like Lawless and The Road, they’ve been spent making below-average scripts look good, rather than making good scripts look great. Triple 9, fitting the trend, suffers from a patchy yet convoluted plot (by Matt Cook) that’s prone to hitting genre beats (like the superfluous addition of the dutiful cop’s wife, played by a horribly under-utilized Teresa Palmer, or scenes set in a dive bar where all the cops gather off the clock) for no reason beyond padding the runtime.
So it’s to the immense credit of both Hillcoat and his smoking-aces cast that Triple 9 still develops as an engaging yarn of morally compromised cops and robbers, a drama of unusual grit and grime that’s not always coherent but transfixes nonetheless, if mostly through sheer force of will. It’s possible the year won’t see another movie as thoroughly drenched in pure, unbridled testosterone, nor one as nastily nihilistic in its views on crime and punishment.
In the film’s absorbing, hyper-masculine world, Atlanta is a grungy quagmire of moral ambiguity, polluted by the toxic presence of a Russian-Jewish mafia outgrowth (nicknamed the “Kosher Nostra”) and infested with dirty cops who clean up some streets and leave others bloodstained.
Marcus Atwood (Anthony Mackie, alternately cold and charismatic) and Jorge Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr., all snaky menace) are two such figures, corrupt cutthroats who occasionally pocket their badges to join a crew of career criminals for audacious bank heists. Michael Belmont (the brilliant Chiwetel Ejiofor) is the stone-faced ringleader of said crew – at the mercy of Russian mob wife Irina Vlaslov (Kate Winslet, in full camp mode) due to a tension-fraught familial connection, he’s blackmailed into completing a seemingly impossible robbery that will bring Vlaslov’s incarcerated husband one step closer to release. The key to pulling it off? Triggering a 999 – that’s police speak for “officer down.”
As the clock runs out, this duplicitous outfit (which also includes Norman Reedus and Aaron Paul as two tightly wound brothers) zeroes in on Atwood’s virtuous partner, a buff rookie named Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), as their mark. Predictably, their plan hits more than a few snags – though getting into details about where Triple 9‘s characters go would be doing it too big of a service, given that it’s one thing to neatly lay out the myriad plot threads Hillcoat and Cook follow and entirely another to watch them converge in a tangled web up on the screen. This is a very busy movie that whizzes by like a pinball in an arcade game, bouncing from scene to scene with ample momentum but much less rhythm or reason.
From the heart-stopping opening scene, a crackerjack bank heist that spills out onto the Atlanta freeway with exploded dye packs enveloping the crew and their getaway vehicle in billowing, blood-red clouds, it’s clear that the antiheroes of Triple 9 are ice-cold customers, all acting in their own best interests and almost as likely to pump their teammates full of bullets as they are to cover their backs.
There’s no honor among these thieves. And much of the film’s tension is derived from wondering who’ll backstab who, as well as when and how – Aaron Paul again channels the bleary-eyed misery of his Breaking Bad character to play the agitated member whose unstable nature is certain to jeopardize everything, but Collins is much scarier as a cold-blooded sadist who keeps one finger on the trigger.
Hillcoat and Cook draw out the inevitable betrayals but execute them swiftly, with the ruthless exactitude of a cobra striking its prey. In those moments, and in each of the three main action sequences (that ballsy opener, a mid-film raid on a criminal’s squalid apartment lair by Atwood and Allen, and a heart-in-mouth hunt through a shadowy labyrinth of corridors that dovetails nicely with the climactic heist), Triple 9 hums with the diffuse, eerie electricity of expectation before erupting in a brutal, devastating flash of alpha-male aggression.
It’s a shame the movie doesn’t always maintain that paranoid, pent-up atmosphere. Winslet’s puppet master is too vaudevillian to mesh with Ejiofor’s world-weary con (or the grounded world of the film, for that matter), and she’s too one-note nasty to work as a big bad. And Cook’s script wanders down some sideplots without connecting all the necessary dots, which leaves some character motivations too murky and others altogether nonsensical.
If Triple 9 had ended up on the small screen, as a TV series, it would have enough time to properly develop all its characters – but as a movie coming in at less than two hours, it pares some interesting figures (like Woody Harrelson as an alcoholic cop, and Michael K. Williams as a transgender informant and street-walker who’s much less central to the plot) down to one disappointing dimension.
Luckily, most of the actors do a lot with a little, particularly Mackie as the most conflicted member of the crew, Affleck as the idealistic mark, and Ejiofor as the between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place mastermind. Triple 9 boasts a stacked cast, and even when the narrative loses its way (mostly in the shaggy-dog third act), they help to anchor the movie in the kind of mean-streets cesspool that feels simultaneously inhospitable and inviting. It’s not Hillcoat’s masterpiece, but as far as slow-burn heist thrillers go, this is a grubbily realistic, tautly directed diversion.
Like its lawless characters, Triple 9 feels appropriately merciless in how it bathes the screen in gasoline, dangles a match across it, then lets the film ignite in a furious, fatalistic fireball.
Triple 9 unfolds in a hyper-masculine haze that's more conducive to adrenaline-rush action and a pervasive sense of high tension than it is to narrative clarity.