In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it.
The year is 1996. It’s about 2 a.m. Your parents are asleep and the television is under your control. Saturday Night Live is over and you’ve spent the last hour channel surfing. You’ve finally settled on a gritty crime drama on HBO. It’s got a ton of stars, but you’ve never heard of it. It’s bloody, intense, and markedly low-class. It’s also a ton of fun. The credits roll and you don’t think much about it, but in the coming days you find that your late night dalliance with a mid-level potboiler is unshakeable. Many a decent thriller found an audience in such a way, and had Triple 9 come out twenty years ago, it would have been right at home all the same. John Hillcoat’s latest thriller is all plot and no story, focusing not on the whys and hows of each character’s motivation, but rather on the ever-snowballing chain of crime and deceit. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does limit the scope of empathy required to truly jibe with the main players. Luckily, the screenplay by Matt Cook (his feature debut) moves at such a breakneck pace that it’s hard to fault any lapses in character development. Add to this a cast packed with big talent, and we’ve got a heist/crime thriller worth watching.
Triple 9 smartly avoids bland exposition by dropping us into a bank robbery already in progress. Unlike many heist flicks, we don’t have to “assemble the team.” The expositional legwork is told through action. The crew consists of an ex-soldier (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a pair of dirty cops (Anthony Mackie, Clifton Collins Jr.), and two low-life criminal brothers (Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus), tasked with stealing a single safe deposit box at the behest of the Russian mob. But when they go to collect their fee, the mob leader (Kate Winslet, stealing the show) won’t pony up, demanding they complete one last job. The thing is, this new job won’t be easy, and they’ll need to distract the authorities with a code 999: an officer killed in action. The officer in question (Casey Affleck) is utterly incorruptible, and wouldn’t you know it, his uncle (Woody Harrelson) is currently investigating the original robbery. Basically, everyone is tied to everyone else in some way – throw in some explosives and you’ve got yourself a movie.
This is definitely an ensemble story. There is some motion to make Chiwetel Ejiofor the lead, but it’s hard to place his story is at the center when the screen time is divided so evenly amongst each narrative. It’s probably better this way. Since everyone but Affleck is operating on some level of gruesome corruption, the forward energy is derived not from allegiances to any one character, but through a white-knuckle desire to see who betrays who next, and how much blood will be shed in the process. Hillcoat’s skills in shot geography are used to create many moments of tension, elevated by a brash score from Atticus Ross. The music doesn’t telegraph the film’s more shocking events, but it does create a moment-to-moment sense that things could become disastrous in an instant, which they often do.
I think that’s what makes this typical February thriller a relative success: it’s grimy, mean, and extremely violent, catering to the baser instincts of filmgoers without being outright dumb. As I said before, it’s exactly the type of movie that you’d catch on HBO at 2 a.m. in 1996, and it’s a delightful departure from the modern tendency to place story over plot. And while it’s nice to be past the point where every male-dominated thriller looked and felt like this one, it’s been long enough since such a time that Triple 9manages to feel fresh.
Triple 9 opens in Philly theaters today.