There’s a line from Youth, Paolo Sorrentino’s under-appreciated film from last year, that has stuck with me. After spending weeks preparing for his upcoming role, Paul Dano’s character decides to abandon it, saying “I have to choose which is worth telling: horror or desire”. It has stuck with me through The Revenant and The Hateful Eight, both of which were beautifully shot, and neither of which offered anything nourishing to counterbalance their brutal nihilism.
Triple 9 doesn’t even have the saving grace of beauty. Directed by The Road‘s John Hillcoat — who was also attached to The Revenant at one point — it presents an eerie parallel to that post-apocalyptic nightmare. Society may not have broken down entirely in this movie’s Atlanta, but the society of honor we once liked to tell ourselves existed among police certainly has.
The only good man in Triple 9, in parallel to Viggo Mortensen’s character in The Road, is Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), newly transferred into the gang squad from a cushy suburban district north of the city center. His uncle Jeff (Woody Harrelson), the detective in charge of major cases, at least wants to be good, but he’s taken to abusing alcohol and other substances.
But Jeff isn’t bad the way gang squad officers Marcus (Anthony Mackie) and Russel (Norman Reedus) are. They’ve gone in with homicide detective Jorge (Clifton Collins Jr.) and Russel’s former-cop brother Gabe (Aaron Paul) to make their very own little gang, working with Russel’s SEAL colleague Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Together, they steal things for Russian mob boss Irina (Kate Winslet), with whose sister Michael has a child.
Or, rather, they made a deal to steal one MacGuffin, and now she needs them to steal another. And since they need more time to steal the second one, they decide to delay the police response by triggering a “triple nine” call: officer down. And what better sacrifice for this gambit than Marcus’ annoying new partner Chris?
At heart, writer Matt Cook has tried to craft a heist film, but it brings to the genre all the elegance and subtlety of Alexander’s solution to the Gordian knot. No matter what problem comes up, the solution is to shoot it a lot or blow it up. And when the bias towards violence leads to bigger problems, that just means more shooting and blowing stuff up.
Triple 9 does have one thing in common with heist classics like Rififi: it wants to use the heist as a lens to see how the various characters’ problems bring them down. Unfortunately, unlike Rififi, it doesn’t nearly pull off that goal. Chris’ own military background is brought up but quickly forgotten. Jeff’s drug habits play as characterization, but to no discernible end. Marcus’ crisis of conscience is explicitly predicted, but is wholly unmotivated. It’s all just noise, providing an excuse for improvised explosives and automatic weapons fire.
Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.