Filmed in Atlanta and set in a New Englander’s nightmare vision of a Southern city contaminated with centuries of race and class disparity, Triple 9 at least deserves some credit for marinating its city with the grime and grotto typically reserved for world cities like New York. With images of the Big Peach still fraught by the oppressive genteel paternalism and antebellum haze of Gone with the Wind and the cringe-inducing respectability politics of Driving Miss Daisy, Triple 9 at least relies on the now cosmopolitan city to construct an identity out of more modern visions of race and class consternation. Triple 9 is not trapped in the streamlined racism of old, but fraught with the combative, confrontational contortions of a city that pummeled its way into the future while still remaining trapped in the past.
It’s hardly a full, robust portrait; Triple 9 is all funereal modern noir 101, but the film distills the city down to a coiled, sinuous, nearly diabolical muscle with leering eyes and perilous torment lingering around every corner. Recently ensnared in transportation and educational travesties that revealed a Southern powerhouse still grappling with its own idea of modernity, this Atlanta is a classically mendacious assemblage of kitschy skyscrapers dwarfing but not masking a hotbed of discontent and disarmament undenearth. Triple 9 falls short of legitimately addressing the causes of institutional poverty and crime, but it evokes the milieu of an ennui-enshrouded city searching for a way out of itself.
While the city’s board of tourism would no doubt propose a certain charming harmony in the piquant mixture of Old South hospitality and New School worldliness, Triple 9’s vision enjoins us to consider the harmony as a ruse and a rumour masquerading tension and turmoil. This is not the Atlanta embroidered on magnets sold in the World of Coca Cola gift shop; this is not a tourist trap, but a choking, strangulating vise of a more viscous kind. And director John Hillcoat, a skilled crasftsman of simmering, forlorn place and brooding, poetic mood more than narrative propulsion, gives his best to add Atlanta to his rogue’s gallery of prior film locations. Watching Triple 9, this South is not that far off from The Proposition’s tumultuous, languid Western Outback or the backwater apocalypse Hillcoat essayed in The Road.
With the sense of atmosphere and place established in Hillcoat’s direction, we almost fail to notice the nigh-incompatibility of the screenplay to the filmmaking. Redolent to the point of turgid emptiness and unsatisfyingly borrowed piecemeal from decades of superior productions, the script for Triple 9 borders on ephemeral. Clearly proposing a connection to modern urban-crisis fiction like The Wire, the film desperately wishes to have its slow-boiling miasma cake and eat its Southern-fried action powerhouse too. Following a cadre of corrupt cops and criminals hired by a Russian – Israeli mob boss to pull off a bank heist, Triple 9 stumbles into potentially puckered-up, pulpy territory when the crew figures the surest way to get the Atlanta PD off their backs is to shoot an officer, call in the 999 code for officer down, and remove the girth of the police from capably being able to respond to a bank heist on the other end of town.
The goofy, potentially raffish story calls for a noirish giddy nihilism akin to Ben Affleck’s battened-down The Town, but Hillcoat’s languid style is a destructive fit for a screenplay that is vastly less interested in the intoxicating pull of urban space and modern desperation than he is. The performances split likewise, with most of the criminals/ bad cops, as well as protagonist Casey Affleck as the presumed officer down, following Hillcoat and playing it straight. Bright spots of off-kilter camp arrive with Woody Harrelson’s snake-oil charm good ol’ boy detective and Kate Winslet’s voluminously loopy Israeli mob boss.
The sense of a film torn with itself is palpable and not conducive to unearned readings about broken cinema reflecting a broken world. Instead of the jarring tonal mismatches elevating the film to a dementedly volatile exercise in noir delirium, they suffocate one another. Any fun is drowned out by the solemnity of the filmmaker, while the script demonstrates only tentative, passing concern for Hillcoat’s usually ethereal version of earthen cataclysm. The dialogue is as arid as the sand in Hillcoat’s Down Under Western limbo in The Proposition, with the characters in this film diametrically opposed to the Malickian study in human fallibility and the supremacy of unnoticed nature Hillcoat excels at.
It’s tempting to refer to Triple 9 as an exercise in pressure release, with the much vaunted director letting his proverbial hair descend below the head-held-high philosophical interests of his other works. But Hillcoat reveals no such desire; his tactile direction is as distress-caked and lachrymose as any of his prior films. It’s the rare case when not directing down to your material harms the film, losing it in a nexus of unfulfilled expectations and misguided mood swings. It’s a carbon-copy thriller at its core, a facsimile of superior productions that has the unfortunate effect of casting Hillcoat’s grimy nihilism in its worst, most monotone light. The film so desperately calls for a midnight fright, a drunken panic attack or two of playful imagery or carnival menace self-reflexively aware of the fundamental silliness of the screenplay. But the viciousness of the piece is drenched in a sobriety that is unbecoming at best, and flatlining at worst.