Genre-hopping Australian director John Hillcoat began his feature film career with 1988’s sledgehammer-to-the-senses prison drama Ghosts…of the Civil Dead, a brutally lyrical macho-rumination featuring a horrifying performance from Nick Cave as a psychotic inmate whose vocabulary consists entirely of four letter words.
Like the characters the film itself feels violently agitated, like a dog in a cage that’s been repeatedly jabbed with a hot poker. The style and aesthetics of Hillcoat’s subsequent work also feel chameleon-like.
The desolate gloom of The Road (2009) is mirrored on the surface and below; a film that looks and feels like a tough journey. An airier, grassy look pried open the Prohibition Era-set Lawless (2012). This was a directorial decision necessary for the cast – which included a bad ass Eliot Ness incarnate played by Guy Pearce, waging war against bootlegging gangsters – to have space to emote beyond caricature.
Hillcoat’s grimy cop drama Triple 9 follows suit, wallowing in its street-side Atlanta settings as if the city were a thick smog slowly congesting its innards. We begin in near darkness, privy to a conversation about a heist, then witness a bank job and subsequent getaway.
Cobbled together in a whoosh of handheld cameras and grainy images shot in close proximity to the actors, the scenes feel edited rather than staged. Hillcoat’s direction calms down and with time finds a kind of downhearted groove, but the hangover from the drunken freneticism of these early moments casts a pall over the film.
The heist is led by Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and its criminal crew comprised of corrupt police officers and former Special Forces members. They do the job at the bequest of Russian mafia (led by, of all people, Kate Winslet, pictured above), who jack up the stakes for their next assignment. This involves stealing data from a high-security government facility.
The cops – Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Franco (Clifton Collins Jr) – have a sort of ace up their sleeves. They suggest the team perform a “triple 9,” which is cop-speak for occasions when a police officer is shot down.
Their logic is that cops will swarm to defend their own, leaving them wide open to break in and grab the loot. Marcus offers up his new and more righteous partner Chris Allen (Casey Affleck) as the sacrificial law-abiding lamb, giving the film a familiar good cop/bad cop friction. There is no protagonist as such. Screenwriter Matt Cook doesn’t seem to trust any of the bandits to steer it, but nor can he abide too many of Allen’s by-the-book-isms.
Enter Woody Harrelson as Sergeant Detective Jeffrey Allen (Chris’ uncle) who has a foot in the both sides of the good/bad divide. Clothed in a dirty button-up shirt, cheap slack ties and crinkled buff-coloured blazer, he warns a colleague that “the monster has gone digital. Be careful what you Insta-Google-Tweet-Face”.
It’s a great line spat out in a perfect sleepy Harrelson haze, sharp but crudely instinctive – as much a bit of dialogue as a wad of phlegm sailing through the air.
The actor’s deflated presence initially suggests apathy bordering on misanthropy. Something vaguely resembling a moral code, however, gradually emerges from him, albeit a little too late given his eventual prominence in the narrative. Hillcoat is gallingly stingy with dishing out the only one of his performances that really nails it.
Triple 9’s icky curbside-style aesthetic dirties up its array of famous faces, among them Aaron Paul as a deadbeat washed up from the cop shop (he plays a former officer, but really the actor is back in Jesse Pinkman mode). There are some well-staged sequences, notably a police raid of a Mexican drug dealer’s apartment. Hillcoat and his cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis show an eye for small details.
But the plot is less twisty than muddled and the story deceptively slight, despite all the moral murkiness. Triple 9 is neither moody nor pulpy; double-downing on either approach might have generated a more compelling style. The overall package feels like a curdled B movie: a little off, and not necessarily in a good way.