What is the purpose of a thriller? Is it to attain some perverse sense of entertainment — cinematic schadenfreude? Whatever the reason we have traditionally valued the crime thriller genre, “Triple 9” tests our dedication to it. The film, directed by John Hillcoat (“Lawless”), offers viewers two hours of visual torture. It’s a film so brutal and visceral that by the end, one feels as if watching a Tarantino movie would lighten the mood.
“Triple 9” follows a group of criminals and corrupt cops who decide to kill a new police officer so they can carry out a large heist on behalf of a Russian mafia boss, led by Irina Vlaslov (played by a steely Kate Winslet, “Steve Jobs”). The film boasts some pretty good acting performances. Chiwetel Ejiofor (“12 Years a Slave”) and Aaron Paul (“Breaking Bad”) both deliver reliably good performances as two dark, slightly maniacal criminals, and Anthony Mackie (“The Hurt Locker”), playing a two-timing cop, makes the best of a limited script. Casey Affleck (“Ocean’s Eleven”) and Woody Harrelson (“True Detective”) deliver performances that play to their strengths, or perhaps their career stereotypes.
Thrillers generally fall into two camps: they either use mystery to build tension and suspense until a climactic action sequence, or they surprise their audience by constructing a peaceful scene that quickly becomes mired in violence. “Triple 9” awkwardly straddles the two. The score by Atticus Ross (“The Social Network”) feels almost repetitive, as if he created only two or three tracks for the entire movie. The editing by Dylan Tichenor (“There Will Be Blood”), who is usually at the top of his game, never lets us linger on a face for too long, keeping us on edge yet never quite achieving the tension that elevates a good film to a great one.
But more than anything else, it’s the writing that hampers the film. Situated somewhere between a crime thriller, family drama and body horror, the film just doesn’t know where it wants to go. It has little to no point or purpose, other than to provide entertainment. That alone is not a problem. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; too often, films try to have a point when they really shouldn’t. But “Triple 9” is so brutal and violent that it couldn’t just stand by itself as a piece of entertainment. It’s a thriller that just doesn’t thrill as much as it should. “Triple 9” also suffers from confusing what information it should and should not reveal. A critical storyline gets lost in the action sequences, yet the identities of the two-timing police officers are revealed in the first scene. The final moments of the film suggest that Hillcoat and writer Matt Cook were more interested simply in the concept of a Triple 9, the police code for a death of a police officer, than a good story that involved one. And, admittedly, the code does have a nice ring to it, but that’s no excuse to spend money and two hours of one’s time.
Further, the film seems to be more of an exercise in hyper-masculinity than an attempt to tell. Like a cinematic dick-measuring contest, each scene seems like an attempt to be more masculine than the scene before. Pointless drug use? Check. Pointless nudity, including a scene in more-graphically-depicted-than-normal strip club? Check. Profanity flies as frequently as the bullets. And of course, this is not always a problem; if the world of the film calls for these sorts of characters, it’s appropriate. But for “Triple 9,” it’s utterly pointless.