CINEPHILIA: Triple 9 is unconventionally stunning

Director John Hillcoat leaves classic cinematic beauty behind.

Grimy, dark movies don’t get enough credit. Examining this year’s best cinematography nominations, including Carol, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Hateful Eight, The Revenant, and Sicario, there seems to be a widespread misconception that traditional beauty defines the worth of a film’s cinematography.

But great cinematography is about feeling; about how the camera’s movement, the texture of the image, the composition, and the lighting evoke a mood and psychology. Planting a camera in a forest during magic hour or whizzing it around in a long take can be dazzling and impressive. But what does it make us feel about the characters and the world they live in?

Starring Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Kate Winslet, and Woody Harrelson, the A-list cast in John Hillcoat’s Triple 9 are extras next to the under-lit bars, abandoned housing complexes, and eerie underground parking lots; the surroundings are more telling and profound than any of the characters themselves.

Following a group of dirty cops turned bank robbers who are involved in a transaction with a Jewish-Russian mob, two investigators begin to look into the bank robbery as well as a homicide in a Latino neighborhood on the outskirts of Atlanta. Confused yet? Triple 9 is incoherently plotted, juggling too many strands and characters. The screenplay by Matt Cook relies on simple motivations, two-dimensional characters, and derivative beats. But Triple 9 is the rare movie where none of this seems to matter all that much.

Crime films, which often function as institutional critiques, are engraved with subtext, whether intentional or not: the economic causes of crime, the unjust investigations of them, and the societal paranoia inflicted by homicides linked to drugs, global conflicts, and domestic politics.

Triple 9 has allusions to the Iraq war, the economic crash in 2009, the prominence of gun culture in the United States, the renewed fear of Russians, and the racial profiling of Latinos for crimes they didn’t commit. None of it coheres, except as a wild pastiche of entrancing images: a police officer hiding three decapitated heads from nearby neighbors with a white sheet; a condemned apartment building that houses the homeless; a neon-lit bar that reeks of stained liquor and loneliness.

Almost every scene is concerned with a space; the political cause for its decrepit status and the impact it has on those who live within it. During the film’s most taut sequence, a group of police officers raid a low-income apartment complex, avoiding the residents during a lethal firefight. A woman opens her front door and sees dozens of cops heavily armed with guns about to open fire steps away from her home. In the middle of his riveting action set-pieces, Hillcoat stops, considers the surroundings and contemplates the impact of violence.

The messily plotted, terribly disjointed, and thematically undercooked Triple 9 is wonderfully grimy, and by all means a beautiful-grimy movie. As a film concerned with environments, not plot, and a portrayal of a world on the brink of collapse, not a study of individual characters, it mostly works. In his first film set in a contemporary period, John Hillcoat (The Road, Lawless) makes a film that is a beautiful to behold only because it’s willing to embrace the polluted: the underrepresented underbelly of city life.