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Non-Review Review: Triple 9

Triple 9 looks great.

Although it set in modern day Atlanta, director John Hillcoat seems to frame Triple 9 as a grim companion piece to The Road. Hillcoat captures the horrors of urban decay, creating a world that seems to teeter on the edge of the abyss. The camera pans through abandoned tenement buildings and lingers on graffiti; bodies are found in shopping trolleys while tinted windows serve to conceal immediate dangers. As filmed by Hillcoat and filtered through the lens of cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis, Atlanta seems to be composed of slums and overpasses.

Traffic stop...

Traffic stop…

From the impressive opening heist set piece, Hillcoat saturates the film with red, as if our heroes are only glimpsed through the light of hellfire. That red comes from multiple sources; a red dye pack that explodes at the worst possible moment, the boots worn by one of the characters, the lights from a police car, the fire from a distant (and somewhat anticlimactic) explosion. Triple 9 is oppressive and grim, with Hillcoat threatening to bring the world collapsing down upon his protagonists.

The problem with Triple 9 has nothing to do with Hillcoat’s aesthetic. Instead, the film suffers from a generic and unfocused script populated by characters who lack agency and identity. The main figures in Triple 9 often feel like pieces of paper caught in a breeze, moving in any given direction at the whim of the plot rather than through any essential quality of their own. Things happen not because they are organic (or even inevitable), but because they are convenient. There are points at which it seems like maybe the characters are not in hell; maybe the audience are.

Married to the mob...

Married to the mob…

Triple 9 has a phenomenal cast. John Hillcoat has assembled a murderer’s row of talent to bring his film to life. Triple 9 features Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson and Kate Winslet. That is before the film gets into its supporting bench of Clifton Collins Jr., Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul and Norman Reedus. Michael K. Williams even makes a small one-scene appearance. There is no shortage of talent in front of or behind the camera when it comes to Triple 9.

More than that, the basic premise of the film is fairly clever. The plot framework is familiar to anybody who has ever seen a heist thriller before; a team of professional criminals are blackmailed into one last job as an eccentric detective works hard to put the pieces together and they threaten to collapse under internal strain. However, Triple 9 has one very clever twist on this basic idea. The gang of criminals is composed of a number of unlikely suspects. The identity of two of the bandits should be enough to construct a compelling film of itself.

A shady character...

A shady character…

The problem with Triple 9 is how the script puts these pieces together. Consider the basic twist, the revelation quite early in the film from which the rest of the movie must flow. It is a very solid hook upon which writer Matt Cook might hang a film. In fact that one early twist should be enough to support the entire film. However, the screenplay doesn’t seem to realise just how clever that twist is. There is no fanfare to that revelation, no tension from that premise. The script to Triple 9 consciously plays down its smartest element, which feels like a miscalculation.

This speaks to the larger issue with the film. It could be argued that the script to Triple 9 underplays its character development and its dramatic beats. The central characters are all assigned character traits that serve to distinguish them from one another, with some even assigned tragic pasts and fatal flaws. The problem is that the script never really distinguishes any of them from broadly drawn archetypes that audience members have seen dozens of times before. The character work is so subtle it is practically non-existent.

He's going to crack the Casey wide open...

He’s going to crack the Casey wide open…

Chiwetel Ejiofor is Michael Belmont, a former special forces veteran turned professional thief. Michael has a cold exterior and a down-to-business attitude, but he also has a son that he loves dearly and who he must protect. Casey Affleck is Chris Allen, a former special forces veteran turned police officer. Chris is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and watches footage of improvised explosive devices at home, while trying to make a difference on the street.

The rest of the cast can be summed up with a single line or two. Marcus Atwood is a veteran cop who had a dark secret. Gabe Welch is the young criminal who finds himself going falling apart after a job goes wrong. Russel Welch is the centre of the group, the cold and rational thinker of this outlaw gang. Jeffrey Allen is a detective with unconventional methods but an intuitive understanding that something big is happening. Irina Vlaslov is the mob wife who may be facing pressure herself as she brings it to bear on Michael.

There are monsters out there...

There are monsters out there…

There are some clever ideas here. There is something interesting in positioning Michael against Chris, two army veterans with very different responses to their time overseas. With its apocalyptic imagery, Triple 9 could be seen to argue that American city streets are themselves being transformed into warzones; both Michael and Chris bring their experience to the fray. (Most notably in Michael’s use of improvised explosive devices towards the climax of the film.) However, all of that is lost in a muddled script that fails to dig below the surface.

There is evidence of this throughout the film. The dialogue is heavy-handed, particularly when it comes to imparting plot information to the audience. Characters seem to talk in ambiguous and metaphorical dialogue except when the movie is hitting on a plot point that will be important. The film never really finds a central protagonist or focal point; it bounces between characters without ever digging beneath anybody’s skin. Triple 9 certainly doesn’t need a hero (or even one central characters), but it does need a character who feels like more than a walking plot device.

"I'm sorry, Kate. I really do think Revolutionary Road was the better performance."

“I’m sorry, Kate. I really do think Revolutionary Road was the better performance.”

However, the clumsiness of the script becomes clearer towards the end. Triple 9 ends on several different anticlimaxes. It could reasonably be argued that this is a thematic point; life is messy and ugly, and things seldom end neatly for those who have involved themselves in this line of work. It is a tried and tested narrative trope in heist thrillers. The problem is that Triple 9 strains to offer an anticlimax for pretty much every character. It undermines the effect, making it seem awkward and stilted. Even the movie’s randomness feels contrived.

It is a shame, because Triple 9 looks very pretty. It has a very distinctive and oppressive visual style that suits the material quite well. Triple 9 unfolds in a world of flawed and compromised characters; it makes sense that the environment should seem hostile and antagonistic. Hillcoat captures the griminess of the city quite well; Triple 9 is populated with the sorts of establishing shots usually reserved for Detroit. It seems like the decay has leech from the characters into the surrounding environment.

Do I detect some disappointment?

Do I detect some disappointment?

Triple 9 feels like something of a botched execution. Which, given how things end up, feels almost appropriate.

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2 Responses

  1. Great review. You sum this up well. There nothing really “bad” about Triple 9, it is just criminally average. A great cast cruise through knowing they get paid and that the film won’t blotch their career sheet. Some great ideas and scenes but nothing too memorable.

    • Thanks Ben. You’re entirely right. The “cops as robbers” premise alone should make a much better movie, let alone the “kill a cop to distract from a heist” plot point. But unfortunately it is all just a jumble.

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