TRIPLE 9: Formulaic to the Point of Cliché
Even though he hails from a nation renowned for its take on exploitation cinema, director John Hillcoat has repeatedly proven himself to be far more interested with the archetypes of American genre films. His international breakthrough feature, 2006’s The Proposition, was the perfect marriage of the sensibilities of Ozploitation and the most hard-boiled Westerns; for a country with no major
Even though he hails from a nation renowned for its take on exploitation cinema, director John Hillcoat has repeatedly proven himself to be far more interested with the archetypes of American genre films. His international breakthrough feature, 2006’s The Proposition, was the perfect marriage of the sensibilities of Ozploitation and the most hard-boiled Westerns; for a country with no major cinema heritage, it suggested Hillcoat was a director who could put his nation firmly on the world cinema map.
Instead of continuing this distinctive subversion of genre with his subsequent films, Hillcoat has become increasingly formulaic. His 2012 crime drama Lawless, which, like The Proposition, featured a screenplay by Nick Cave, was indistinctive despite the two very distinctive personalities behind it. It was merely a run-of-the-mill historical crime drama, as opposed to one that reinvented the tired narrative threads it was once again telling. Triple 9 easily proves to be his weakest effort to date – Lawless may have felt uninspired, but Triple 9 is formulaic to the point of cliché.
An Uninspired Crime Thriller
The narrative of Triple 9, at once simplistic and frustratingly over-plotted, attempts to tie together as many over-utilised crime thriller elements as humanly possible. There are cartel-style drug gangs, bank robberies, Russian mobsters and the out-of-town cop convinced of corruption in the force – all thrown on top of each other in a way that feels like no cliché was to be left unused before the film could enter production.
The oft-used maxim is that directors tend to find the film during editing. Hillcoat appears to have completely lost the film altogether, as although the basic narrative synopsis sounds intriguing, in trying to tie all these elements up elegantly the final product doesn’t feel coherent. It feels weighted down by the dueling narrative strands that don’t feel of a piece with each other, even though they are all vital to the story being told.
Combined with the solemn, humourless tone of the film, Triple 9’s disjointed overly-familiar storytelling proves to be a drag. This is the brand of crime thriller we have seen countless times before, told more confidently and in a more entertaining manner; the foreboding serious tone of the film won’t help the audience take the most ridiculous and over-worked aspects of its genre-literate screenplay any more seriously.
Matt Cook’s screenplay has been in gestation for the entire decade. It was included on Hollywood’s “blacklist” of best unproduced screenplays as far back as 2010, a year that also highlighted Taylor Lautner action film Abduction and Zac Efron comedy That Awkward Moment as stand-out scripts that desperately needed to be produced. Even with the shaky-history of the blacklist screenplay survey, which highlights as many bad films as it does good ones, Triple 9 still managed to attract a wide array of talent, all happy to commit to minor roles that would otherwise be beneath them.
Kate Winslet, currently riding high from awards acclaim for Steve Jobs, is wasted entirely in a thankless Russian mobster role – essentially an extended cameo where she spends the entire time dressed in Kristin Scott Thomas’ wardrobe from Only God Forgives.
An Unforgivable Waste of a Great Cast
Triple 9 isn’t a sexist film by any means, but it is one that has a hard time fleshing out its female characters, that is if they do appear at all. Cook’s original screenplay must have provided a meatier female role, one that felt integral to the plot instead of bordering on tangential, to attract not just the attention of Winslet but also Cate Blanchett, who was initially cast in the film prior to production.
Like his previous film Lawless, Hillcoat manages to be able to cast some of the best actresses working today only to waste them in thankless roles that are beneath their talents. To his credit, at least he is operating under an equal-opportunities waste of time for all the actors involved, as there are no male roles here that qualify as engaging either.
Casey Affleck delivers the closest thing to a solid performance, managing to humanise that rare thing – a main character who exists purely as a McGuffin. Woody Harrelson almost manages to steal the show, being introduced giving money to protesting black supremacists to incite a reaction, approaching subsequent scenes with a lightning bolt of quirk. His spaced-out, oddball dialogue readings (“Insta-Google Twitter-Face”) momentarily give the film something unique amidst a cavalcade of clichés – until the story requires for him to become a central character and all personality has to be sacrificed.
There is also a wasted, borderline offensive, appearance from Michael K. Williams – who Hillcoat previously wasted in an inconsequential cameo in his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Based on his earlier work, it is clear many actors consider Hillcoat an actor’s director; yet with each film offering an increased number of cast members and less interesting characters, it should be time for them to accept this may not be the case.
The film finished production in 2014 and in the time between post-production and release, many of its set-pieces (which are unavoidably genre staples) have been executed with more flare and innovation elsewhere. A tunnel chase scene recalls the morally ambiguous climax to Sicario, with Atticus Ross’ score for Triple 9 failing to create the same sense of atmospheric dread that the score for Denis Villenueve’s thriller managed. Then there is the motorway shootout, recalling not just the traffic jam sequence in the aforementioned Sicario, but also the backbone for Marvel’s Deadpool. It is a bad move to release a film with a cliché in the immediate weeks following a successful film that definitively parodied it.
The problem with Triple 9 isn’t that it is an uber-masculine piece of genre fiction – it is that it is a formulaic one that never gives the hint of having anything approaching a distinctive personality.
What are the best crime thrillers so far this decade? And which films manage to breathe new life into old clichés?
Triple 9 is out now in the UK and on February 26 in the US. All international release dates can be found here.
“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.