TRIPLE 9 (2016, John Hillcoat)
My favorite moment in TRIPLE 9 comes early on, during the bank heist that incites the action of the movie. Our antiheroes storm the bank, sending customers and employees to the floor. Chaos ensues. The camera is frantic – jogging back and forth, cutting harshly, and operating in varying close-ups and wide shots. One of these wide shots is from the second floor, looking below towards a woman lying face down on the carpet with her arms outstretched in compliance. This shot lasts maybe one second, but it’s long enough to register a dark puddle on the carpet around her thighs. She has pissed herself from fear.
Although I wish there were more of these moments (and maybe there are – the soiled woman is so brief I almost missed it, so what else did I actually miss?), there’s an overwhelming sense of harsh reality in this otherwise predictable, genre-adhering cops-and-robbers Western noir. The world as presented by Hillcoat is damned from the start, because our selfish desires and loyalty to family trumps most moral codes. Everything unravels – quickly – because entropy rules and there’s little hope for redemption.
Speaking of redemption, Matt Cook’s screenplay leaks religious curiosity. But it also sets up a bizarre and somewhat troubling defense of white Christians as the good guys, while Jews, blacks, and Latinos are the bad guys. I can see an argument that this movie is almost flat-out neo-Nazi, but luckily there are enough complications to keep those disturbing accusations at bay. Gang leader Chiwetel Ejiofor (yet another great performance in a growing career full of them) may be a hardened military-trained criminal, but he’s the smartest person in the film and a loyal father. Mafioso wife Kate Winslet (her Russian accent a shaky cousin to the ill-fitting Polish she tried on for STEVE JOBS) wears a Star of David in every scene and commands terrible deeds, but her moral compass isn’t all that different from that of detective Woody Harrelson (a drug addict cop who nonetheless is one of our two tragic heroes), as they both understand their place in the world and what has to be done to protect their interests and their families.
Clifton Collins, Jr., a classic “that-guy” who has been great for a long time (check him out in the underrated TIGERLAND) is the most crooked of all the cops, and his Latino thuggishness is matched only by the street gang Latinos who spend their days either decapitating rivals or shooting at poor Casey Affleck (maybe the best performance in the movie, which is saying something – is he ever not great?), who wears a cross and returns home to his white family where hopefully no harm will come. Hillcoat makes sure to throw Aaron Paul and Norman Reedus to the wolves as well, just so there are as many screw-up degenerate whites as there are minorities.
Characters aren’t given a lot of back story, so we’re asked to invest time with them based on little more than the actions they take during the movie – they invent themselves with each scene (much like the context-less and masterful DRUG WAR by Johnnie To) even though the narrative itself takes a back seat to the world-building. Story and plot points aren’t as much a concern here, so we aren’t forced to endure scenes of exposition. Instead, attention is paid to gritty setpieces like a raid on a ghetto house (where Affleck is very happy to have one of those SWAT shields in front of his face) or a violent and suspenseful robbery with explosives strapped to guards’ faces and feet. This is an uncomfortable movie to watch – both because of the danger and suspense and the uneasy treatment of minorities – but it pulses with a veracity that’s missing from others of its genre. It reminded me of the films of Ric Roman Waugh (FELON, SNITCH), textured and macho.