John Hillcoat is a talented director, and yet his films since his breakout feature The Proposition, have come up frustratingly short. The Road is bleak beyond all reason, and while it may leave the viewer shaken, it doesn’t leave them feeling nourished. Lawless has an outstanding cast with strong performances, but again, Hillcoat doesn’t seem to get all he could from the material and his keen visual eye. And his problems continue with the bloated crime drama, Triple 9. Once again blessed with an all-star cast, Hillcoat wrestles with problems at a script level and comes out with a movie that’s colorful at best, but never adds up.
The film has a clever hook of being an anti-heist film of sorts by breezing through a bank robbery in the opening credits where we meet criminals Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor), brothers Russell (Norman Reedus) and Gabe (Aaron Paul), and corrupt cops Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Jorge (Clifton Collins Jr.). The team is working for the Russian-Jewish mob in Atlanta, and while they deliver the safety deposit box, they’re then tasked with a second heist at the Department of Homeland Security. There’s no way to keep the heat off long enough to do the job unless they call in a code “999”, a cop shooting. However, Marcus believes they’ve found the perfect target in his innocent, idealistic, new partner Chris (Casey Affleck), who’s also the nephew of detective Jeff Allen (Woody Harrelson), the cop trying to solve the bank heist.
That’s a lot of plot crowded into a two-hour movie, and that’s not to mention the involvement of Michael’s son, who’s being held hostage by nefarious mob wife Irina (Kate Winslet). The move is so busy trying to spin plates that it never lets you dig deep into the characters’ lives. Everything is motivation with very little emotion, and while you would expect a cast this talented to deliver in that department, their performances never have room to breathe. No one is particularly bad, but they’ve all been far better elsewhere except for Harrelson who is an actor who shows that he’s just at the top of his game wherever he goes (it doesn’t hurt that it sounds like he’s ad-libbing most of his dialogue, which gives him freedom his fellow actors seem to lack).
With no time to invest in the emotional stakes and really root for the characters, Triple 9 just poses simplistic moral questions. Will Marcus really pull the trigger on a fellow cop just to save his own ass? Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter because we don’t have a sense of Chris as a real person, so we don’t care if he lives or dies. Additionally, Chris and Marcus don’t really like each other so the moral stakes between them are weak. Triple 9 has the broad scope correct, but it keeps missing the little details to make everything click into place.
The same goes for Hillcoat’s direction. He has the right actors, but he can’t get the best performances from them. He has the right look, but it’s frequently muddled by poor camerawork and editing during the action scenes. He has the right tone, but it doesn’t have the emotional hook to make us care about any of the players involved. There are moments where the film is highly taut, but there’s no payoff. The string is about to snap, but when it does, we’re still not invested in the characters or their struggles even though Hillcoat put so much effort in trying to keep up with the lies and manipulation in this ensemble.
It’s a shame because while it would be easy to write Hillcoat off, the talent is clearly there. It’s undeniable in certain shots he takes and in certain scenes taken piecemeal from the whole. But when put together, Triple 9 is a bit of a slog, and maybe if Hillcoat can find a better editor and a better screenplay, he’ll finally find a film that’s a worthy successor to The Proposition. But you can call off Triple 9.