John Hillcoat’s Triple 9 is a neo-noir concerned less with its busy plot than with forging a miasmic atmosphere of doom and futility, inhabited by military veterans who return home from places like Afghanistan and find themselves unable to shake an adrenalized existence lived on the cusp of death. These veterans are detectives, or criminals, or both, but they adhere to the higher loyalty of the bonds they formed in combat. Such deeper allegiances are rarely spoken of in the film, but alluded to in dialogue that indicates who served with who, and in the visuals, which synonymize gunfights and heist sequences with warfare, particularly in the tactical blocking of the various killers as they stalk corridors, assuming defensive postures.
Hillcoat has established himself as an obsessive director given to lingering on bloody stabbings and slayings, hanging on close-ups of miserable characters as they stew over the constrictions of the brutal world in which they find themselves. The filmmaker’s aesthetic is often overwrought and sometimes unconvincing, particularly as applied to the formulaic scripts he favors, but a haunting earnestness in his direction distinguishes him from more flamboyantly and superficially macho practitioners of the crime-film genre. There’s explicit sadness in Hillcoat’s preoccupation with violence, portentous images, and moody scores—a sensitivity to the pain wrought by aggression. This fragility explains why Hillcoat’s films have rarely caught on in America, as they refuse to provide a guilt-free kick.
It’s not difficult to see why Triple 9 was poorly received, though it’s Hillcoat’s most ambitious and resonant work since his 2005 breakthrough, The Proposition. This film, nihilistic to the core, has no real heroes, and its plot is stubbornly difficult to piece together, introducing expository information long after the first act has concluded. No single protagonist arises to command our attention, as Triple 9 is forever scattering out among supporting characters, played by a uniformly superb cast, who grow more unhinged and disreputable as the narrative proceeds. But the convolutions of the plot are integral to its theme, which concerns the moral convolutions of a society that hinges on contradictory, overlapping loyalties and fealties. In the military, one’s conditioned to value a higher objective at the expense of committing immediate atrocity, and Triple 9’s characters bring that rationale to bear on their criminal enterprises as well as their methods of law enforcement. The film dramatizes a war within each character between multiple families (biological, professional, ideological, racial, national), showing that this über-internalized vision of every family or person for themselves begets anarchy.
Hillcoat is interested more in formal textures and flourishes than plot anyway. When Sgt. Detective Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson) questions an informant about someone who might be involved in a bank heist, our attention is drawn less to the murky dialogue than to the sweat on Allen’s forehead, his general posture of earnestly badass disenchantment, the American-flag tie he’s wearing, which is ironic in the context of a film so critical of American life, and the joint he’s smoking. Later, when someone discovers that a dirty cop is planning to kill them, we’re most aware of the cop’s man-bun and stylish vest, which he straightens with a scary suggestion of submerged violence.
Earlier, during the bank heist that sets the film in motion, we see the getaway van as it’s flooded with red paint from a dye pack, dousing the robbers’ black outfits, creating an indelible image of the criminals, who appear demonic in their newly blood-hued outfits. To quote an informant, they resemble “the devil’s dick” or, quite pointedly, soldiers who’ve just executed a gory mission that wouldn’t make the nightly news. Red permeates the images throughout, splashing through predominantly black and gray steel-edged frames, giving Triple 9 the look of a horror film—an association that’s intensified by the obsessive score by Atticus Ross, Bobby Krlic, Leopold Ross, and Claudia Sarne.
If the American noirs of the 1940s and ’50s concerned the fallout from World War II and the inability of shaken veterans to re-acclimate to civilian life, then films like Triple 9 show how this torment manifests itself now in the aftermath of unending Middle Eastern warfare, with inhospitable domestic employment opportunities and ultraviolent video games that either condition one for warfare or allow veterans to briefly re-experience a miniature, fleeting kill-or-be-killed catharsis. Everyone here, regardless of their loyalties, shares a commonality: They’re obliged to masters they don’t understand, as the result of innumerable kinds of internal and external conditioning. An act of murder, in which an exploited man blows a gangster up in her caravan, comes to be informed with a weird element of optimism: Here is one person who cuts their leash. Of course, there’s always retribution. Retribution is endless, whether we’re talking the Middle East or an elaborate genre-film mousetrap.
Triple 9 was digitally shot, but abounds in filmic textures that are sharply preserved by this transfer. Colors are deep and well-varied, particularly the rich, menacing reds and blacks. The metallic silvers of the cityscapes are crisp and complemented by a convincing and understated level of grit, which also meshes with the notable facial detail of the actors’ sweaty, dirty, warried faces. The superb soundtrack captures the aural-spatial specificity of the gunfights, balancing the unusually heavy rat-a-tat of weapon fire with the scuttling of human bodies and crunching and crashing of cars and supplementary tools. Every sound is clear. This track never devolves into the discordant soup that can sometimes be made of action-heavy mixes, and the score resonates with a heavy, saber-rattling sense of dread.
Two brief supplements, collectively running five minutes, offer uninteresting puff testimonials to the brilliance of the cast and crew. The deleted scenes are transitional filler, except for an alternate version of a major death scene that illustrates how events can be changed and massaged over the course of assembling a film. Still, nothing to see in this barebones package.
This terrific neo-noir has been outfitted with a beautiful transfer and no extras to speak of, which is a shame, as it’s time to begin the cultural rehabilitation of this regrettably overlooked film.