If he hadn’t already made a Prohibition-era Western called “Lawless,” director John Hillcoat might as well have saved that title for “Triple 9,” a modern-day heist thriller of unusually grim, coiled intensity: About as far removed as possible from the suave leisure-suit larcenists of an “Ocean’s Eleven” caper, the desperate crooks trying to pull off one last job here are a bunch of corrupt cops and ex-soldiers in Atlanta, navigating a shadowy urban labyrinth with no chance of escape or redemption in sight. Well suited to Hillcoat’s gifts for low-boil suspense and brutal eruptions of violence in close, male-dominated quarters, the film has grit and atmosphere to burn but also a certain narrative sketchiness, as though unable to reconcile its sharp sociological portraiture with the pleasures of a more robustly plotted crime yarn. While a diverse, high-wattage cast including Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Kate Winslet should draw some takers, the Open Road release looks set for a minor killing at best.
From the various names rattled off in the talky opening scene to the credits montage of flashing newspaper headlines — including a disturbing cutaway to bodies stashed in a car trunk — it’s immediately apparent that absolute clarity is not going to be the movie’s chief narrative priority. Yet Hillcoat has a gift for making even murkiness arresting: He defies audiences to look away from a swiftly paced set piece in which several armed and masked men enter an Atlanta bank in broad daylight and break into a safe deposit box. Amid the harrowing freeway shootout that follows (imagine a more realistic version of the opening standoff in “Deadpool”), a bright-red smoke bomb goes off inside their getaway vehicle, amping up the action and providing a striking visual correlative for the bloody confusion that has reigned until this point.
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The clouds are dispelled, somewhat, as we get to know the men behind the masks, all of whom turn out to hail from various branches of law enforcement and the military: There are two dirty cops, the streetwise Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie) and the menacing Jorge Rodriguez (the scene-stealing Clifton Collins Jr.), and the hardened Welch brothers, Gabe (Aaron Paul) and Russell (Norman Reedus). Their leader is the world-weary Michael Atwood (Ejiofor), a puppet of the so-called “Kosher Mafia,” a Russian-Israeli mobster enclave ruled over by the ruthless Irina Vaslov (Winslet). Sneering at the men’s latest haul, Irina demands that they pull off another job or face very unfortunate consequences; in Michael’s case, those consequences involve the young son he shares with Irina’s sultry sister, Elena (Gal Gadot), which has effectively locked him in a custody battle with the mob.
If it takes some time to get one’s bearings, it’s because first-time feature screenwriter Matt Cook has sketched this cynical portrait of Atlanta’s not-so-finest from the inside out; we’re already waist-deep in moral rot from the opening frames. Setting the next phase of the drama in motion is the arrival of Marcus’ new partner, Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), an honest cop who shows no interest in compromising, and who hopes to do right by his mentor, major-crimes investigator Jeffrey Allen (a flashy Woody Harrelson, no stranger to this terrain after “True Detective” and “Rampart”). That makes Chris an easy target when Michael and his team decide to stage a “999” (police code for “officer down”), which will effectively divert all other cops in the city while the heist is going down.
There are few surprises to how this risky gambit plays out: Bodies will pile up, heads will roll (or at least get propped up neatly on a car trunk), and death itself will come to seem a welcome deliverance for many. What clearly intrigues Hillcoat and Cook is the opportunity to lend these twisty genre proceedings a scuzzy real-world texture that reflects the unique demographics of the modern city. The Atlanta we see is a veritable melting pot of criminality and compromise, where thugs can be identified by their tattoos or their kippahs, and where police officers are more or less evenly divided among white, black and brown, whatever their true colors may be. Every new twist feels rooted in an uneasy tension — and an even more uneasy complicity — between the forces of law and disorder.
That interconnectedness is never more apparent than in a scene in which Marcus tries to keep his new partner from getting too aggressive with the Mara Salvatrucha gangsters on the sidelines of a particularly nasty crime scene, an almost throwaway moment haunted by the ever-present specter of police brutality. Encounters with some of the city’s seedier factions are played with an almost documentary-like offhandedness, with the bracing exception of a scene featuring a transgender prostitute-turned-informant named Sweet Pea — played, terrifically, by Michael K. Williams, in direct acknowledgment of the film’s obvious debt to “The Wire.”
With its barely two-hour running time and heist-centric construction, “Triple 9” can’t hope to offer more than a murky approximation of that series’ novelistic sweep. Hillcoat’s commitment to realism is credible and creditable, even when it allows him to cut a few too many narrative corners: The puzzle pieces don’t snap as crisply into place they might have, and those inclined to give the movie points for subtlety and texture might also fault it for avoiding obvious payoffs (though one development involving a cleverly placed explosive device proves undeniably satisfying). In particular, the complex relationship between Affleck’s straight-shooting Chris and Mackie’s treacherous Marcus, who slowly comes to doubt his murderous course of action, could have used one more scene or narrative layer to stoke the moral tension.
The occasional imprecision of the storytelling leaves “Triple 9” feeling less like a straightforward thriller than a seething miasma of masculine aggression — not unlike what Hillcoat achieved in “Lawless” and “The Proposition,” the 2005 oater he shot in his native Australia. In those earlier films, the director evinced a fearsome propensity for on-screen gore, and the violence here, while restrained by comparison, has a similarly disquieting impact. One man’s fate behind the wheel is staged so subtly that it takes a moment to fully register; later, even when brains are splattered or a limb gets blown off, the carnage never feels gratuitous.
Between this and the Sundance-premiered “Manchester by the Sea,” Affleck continues to cement his standing as one of the most persuasive leading men of his generation; impulsive and cautious by turns, his protagonist provides a rich rooting interest opposite Ejiofor’s world-weary ringleader and Mackie’s more fresh-faced troublemaker. Reedus registers potently in a brief role; Paul once more channels the bleary-eyed soul of “Breaking Bad’s” Jesse Pinkman while capturing an ex-soldier’s disillusionment; and Collins is quietly, implacably terrifying as the most ruthless of Michael’s partners in crime. As ever, Hillcoat struggles to turn the women into more than a peripheral presence, though with the showy exception of Winslet’s snarling Yiddish mob mama, his efforts largely defeat him: Gadot is treated as little more than a distractingly pretty face, while Teresa Palmer passes through briefly as Chris’ concerned wife.
Taking excellent advantage of his Atlanta locations, the director stages action and conflict with a blurry mean-streets verisimilitude, propelled by Nicolas Karakatsanis’ active handheld lensing and Dylan Tichenor’s switchblade editing, and backed by a propulsive wall-of-sound score credited to four composers (the busy Atticus Ross and his wife, Claudia Sarne, and brother, Leopold, plus the British musician Bobby Krlic). Some of the most unnerving sequences find Hillcoat guiding his cops silently through a dim tenement building, or into a warren of empty corridors where danger may lurk behind every corner. The result is a film that conveys the eerie sense of lying in wait for all its characters, and the paranoia is infectious, with at least two scenes certain to have viewers checking their car backseats upon exiting the theater.