With Triple 9, Oz auteur John Hillcoat for better and for worse gets the closest he’s come to finding his true voice since he left the Outback for Hollywood a decade ago. His latest, a cops ’n‘ robbers thriller that’s inescapably indebted to the genre, is harsh, violent and at times repugnantly amoral. Like all of Hillcoat’s pictures from this century, Triple 9 is a gore-saturated variation on the western, but away from 19th-century Australia, Prohibition-era Virginia or post-apocalyptic America, Triple 9 feels more gruesome than Hillcoat’s other recent works partly due to the fact it’s set so close to home, in modern-day big city USA.
A particularly claustrophobic and insular Atlanta, Georgia accommodates Hillcoat’s battered lawmen and crim oddballs this time around. Innocent legs are blown apart by explosives and passers-by are shot in the street in this warzone, across which cop Chris Allen (Casey Affleck) pursues a gang of super-skilled bank robbers, unaware his new partner Marcus (Anthony Mackie) is also one of them. When the gang, fronted by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Michael Belmont, need a 999—code for “officer down,” which draws all available police to the scene—to provide a distraction from their latest heist, it falls to Marcus to do the job on Chris.
After his oddly sanitized adaptation of The Road and the intermittently punchy Lawless, Triple 9 seethes with an intense cruelty unseen in any Hillcoat movie since The Proposition. There’s a casual brutality to each character in his sweaty Atlanta, up to and including Casey Affleck’s One Good Cop, who gets the hero’s job done with swaggering, sociopathic detachment. Everyone else is plain dirty or a crook: the unfeeling bank-robbing crew of police and ex-military (Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins Jr. and Norman Reedus, joining Ejiofor and Mackie), the Russian-Israeli crime boss they’re beholden to (Kate Winslet), and Woody Harrelson’s coke-snorting detective uncle to Affleck’s Chris.
How much you can tolerate Triple 9 depends on how well you can stomach spending two hours with such unsavory characters. They’re the reason Triple 9 will prove so off-putting to some, and why the film is perhaps more uncompromising than anything else Hillcoat’s done. There’s none of the underlying humanism of The Road, nor the poetry of The Proposition, nor the ultimate moral certainty of Lawless. Triple 9 instead luxuriates in its characters’ nihilism, Hillcoat taking a nonjudgmental spectator role as bodies begin to mount and betrayals pile upon betrayals.
Happily the absence of Hillcoat’s usual musical collaborator and/or scribe Nick Cave (Triple 9 is the first of Hillcoat’s six movies not to feature Cave in some capacity) isn’t too keenly felt, thanks to a tough noir screenplay by Matt Cook and an electronic score buzzing with dread, courtesy of an Atticus Ross-led compositional foursome. The sun-fried photography by Nicolas Karakatsanis, a Michaël R. Roskam and Matthias Schoenaerts regular, similarly adds to the queasy hardboiled atmosphere. Karakatsanis’ images are flecked with neon—the sickly pink of exploding anti-theft dye, the canary yellow of the paint tossed on cops when they’re trapped in a bad neighborhood—like graffiti splashed on the screen.
The strange, bright scuzziness of the overall style elevates Triple 9’s more familiar elements, such as the Heat-like heists and the tense cop vs. crook stand-offs. Triple 9 is Hillcoat’s most conventional film plot-wise, but as ever the filmmaker fixates on the details that add color to his world: thick-thighed prostitutes airing their wares in baking broad daylight, Russian mobsters collecting the teeth of their (still-living) victims in plastic bags, decapitated gangbanger heads placed neatly on a car bonnet as a warning to rivals.
Hillcoat is an enthusiastic world-builder, less concerned with upgrading his characters from types into fleshed-out human beings. (His characters often seem like mythic figures that’d be more at home in folk ballads than in feature films.) Hillcoat and Cook evidently aren’t interested in giving their characters arcs or indeed much personality, though the impressive cast injects character where it can. Affleck in particular continues to prove himself as maybe Hollywood’s best offbeat leading man, with his high voice, peculiar boyish features and unshowy style. Few actors can suggest so much with such quiet precision, and even here Affleck is compulsively watchable despite his undercooked character.
Chris isn’t the only one who Hillcoat doesn’t develop through the film. Nobody really learns anything across the course of Triple 9; no one finds redemption or gets what they want. It adds to the fatalistic tone. Triple 9 could in fact be the least forgiving Hillcoat has ever been on humanity, depicting the world—or at least Atlanta, Georgia—as a hot cesspit of corruption and greed. Before now Hillcoat at least always offered the faintest flicker of light. With Triple 9, he cheerfully extinguishes it.
Director: John Hillcoat
Writer: Matt Cook
Starring: Casey Affleck, Anthony Mackie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins Jr., Norman Reedus, Kate Winslet, Woody Harrelson
Release Date: February 26, 2016