In the world of modern cinema, there’s a perfectly acceptable time and place to pull off a crime thriller that is full of ugliness, unforgiving characters, and brutal violence, but it must be done with some air of confidence. Unfortunately, Triple 9 never comes close to reaching that level.
When an important bank heist goes wrong, a team of corrupt policemen and criminals are forced to organize the murder of a cop, but it’s never as simple as they hoped it would be. While the cast is loaded with many familiar faces, there’s often no reason for so many characters to be injected into this relatively straightforward story. And one of the many things that suffers because of that addition is motivation. By the end of the first act, motivations and alliances between cop and criminal became completely incoherent. Not only that, the hints of those connections that director John Hillcoat (The Road, Lawless) so desperately wanted us to understand end up being quite generic and feel into the never-ending tomb of crime genre clichés.
Chris (Casey Affleck) is a talented police officer who occasionally gets into the deep end, which isn’t something audience haven’t seen before. Now there are ways of moving around trope and delving into the psychology of that type of life, but that never comes to fruition. His character as well as the relationship with his partner Marcus (Anthony Mackie) is never fully earned. So, what was meant to be a character-driven piece becomes dull and unlikable.
Even though plenty of films for many decades have made dark movies about horrible people, artistic style usually comes through to help support the dreariness that is attached to that style. And what Hillcoat has chosen to do is not that, which is strange considering his excellent visual aesthetic of darkly beautiful scenery and low-key lighting. Both the action and the dialogue scenes are filmed in handheld, making the (already) chaotic nature of the film even more so. Besides the opening bank heist, most of the action is mystifying to the viewer. The lighting, another one of Hillcoat’s strengths, is overly dark, allowing for no real comprehension for the majority of bigger moments.
Irina (Kate Winslet) is Russian crime boss who should look like she’s in-control but is often times absent for long stretches as well as being presented in a very inconsequential way. But her performance of this beautiful but dangerous leader is something that is quite new for her. She pulls off the character well in the brief time that she had on screen, it’s just too bad she didn’t have a bigger role to play.
It’s hard to grasp what this film set out to do. It sometimes seems like it should be action-based, yet there’s very little of it, especially within the confusing second act. Then, it tries to build the characters, but never does anything new or genuine with the execution. If those two fail, at least have something that’s compelling or thematically deep, but to no avail. It wants to be too much and digs itself deeper because of it.
The end result is an entirely unlikable story with an overabundance of poorly-developed characters. There are a few quick flourishes of well-executed action and decent performances, but there’s very rarely anything to cling to. With the massive amounts of talent both behind and in-front of the camera, it could have been much better. It’s by far Hillcoat’s weakest effort and so hopefully this will be his only misfire in his promising career.