Movie Review: “Triple 9”

Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Kate Winslet, Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, Gal Gadot, Teresa Palmer
John Hillcoat

Director John Hillcoat makes unpleasant movies. His films (“The Road,” “The Proposition”) tend to focus on violent worlds, and how characters embrace, accept or run from their environment. Hillcoat is an unflinching filmmaker, even when he’s making more commercial movies. “Triple 9” is a more conventional picture from the director, but as proven with “Lawless,” he knows how to spin a familiar tale well.

The Russian mob, led by a ferocious and dazzling Kate Winslet, has a well-trained team of robbers firmly under its thumb, including two corrupt cops (Anthony Mackie and Clifton Collins Jr.). Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is the leader of the gang and wants out, but due to personal reasons – he has a kid with the mob boss’ sister (Gal Gadot) – starting a new life isn’t going to be easy. To begin again, Michael will have to pull off a near-impossible heist. However, an opportunity presents itself when one of his crew members, Marcus Belmont (Mackie), is assigned a new partner in rookie cop Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), who he may have to betray in order to earn his last big score.

This crime thriller, written by Matt Cook, is very much rooted in genre. The setup, some of the archetypes, and the payoffs are often what you expect, but when Cook and Hillcoat dig a little deeper, the results are generally rewarding, especially when it comes to the more dynamic performances.

Woody Harrelson as Chris’ brother, Sergeant Detective Jeffrey Allen, is just a big ball of unstoppable, unhinged and enigmatic energy. Whenever he enters a room, “Triple 9” just lights up. It’s not because Harrelson is playing a scene-stealing kind of character, but it’s the duality of his performance and Cook’s writing that makes the detective such a fascinating figure. He’s a mess, always looking like he just got out of bed. He’s a goof and breaks the rules, but he’s also a kind-hearted guy and a cop dedicated to his job and his brother. The character goes to some funny places, and when Hillcoat and Harrelson go there, it’s very entertaining.

Anthony Mackie is certainly a match for Harrelson, too. His performance is far more reserved, but there is just as much going on beneath the surface. While the film could use some breathing room to explore Belmont’s internal conflict more in the second act, Mackie wastes no time getting across his character’s struggle. Both Mackie and Ejiofor have rare star presences. They can play tough guys, but they infuse those characters with real vulnerability. Neither actor is playing a good man, but there’s a sadness to both of their performances that grounds the reality and stakes of the film.

Affleck also delivers an assured performance as the “good guy,” but it’s nothing too showy. You can’t help but shake the feeling that he lost some scenes in post-production. Funnily enough, he spends less time with Harrelson than he does with Mackie, and yet the former is the richer relationship in the film. Although “Triple 9” does take its time, as most good heist movies do, it could still use more of Chris Allen. His wife, played by Teresa Palmer, is also given very little to do. Their relationship, narratively, sits on the sidelines.

“Triple 9″ isn’t a very emotional movie, but it is a visceral one; Hillcoat often shoots the thriller as a nightmare. There’s one particular scene where a character is studying decapitated heads with nonchalance, and the camera movements that Hillcoat makes are both funny and chilling. The film has a few stylish touches like that scene that help elevate “Triple 9.” Granted, it’s still a very familiar story, but as told through John Hillcoat’s eyes, it’s a pretty good one nonetheless.