The labyrinthine plot of Triple 9 has potential for layers of conflicted interests and cross purposes, but enacting all these machinations are types that even actors of this caliber are unable to elevate. Affleck's an idealistic novice, Harrelson's a grizzled and jaded but competent cynic, and Paul plays an unstable junkie. Winslet's comical accent makes her otherwise poised and deadly matriarch a joke, and Ejiofor will do anything for the son that is being held hostage in Winslet's gilded cage. Collins, Jr. is a garden variety psychopath, and Reedus is no-nonsense. Each is given that one thing except for Mackie, who gets the most but the film never does much with his dilemma beyond what's expected. All are hampered by leaden exposition that rips the viewer out of the film. First-time screenwriter Matt Cook, who wrote two other 2016 releases, isn't putting a 'watch my scripts' sticker by his name based on how he informs the viewer that Reedus and Paul are brothers by having the former address the latter as 'little brother,' like all siblings do everywhere.
Hillcoat might not be starting from a great script, but that doesn't keep him from being wildly inconsistent with the action onscreen. Some scenes, like an intro heist and a residential shoot-out, resonate with the urgency and intensity that his earlier work has been characterized by. Others are badly edited, with distracting cutaways to distant locations and characters in the midst of climactic events. Pivotal moments flash by in confused fashion, something that could be a thematic point about anti-climax or the sudden randomness of violence but for the viewer, only serve to furrow brows and wonder at what just happened instead of staying present in the characters' heads.
Triple 9 is a frustrating mess that will be buried alongside other forgettable crime dramas like A Man Apart or Street Kings, but Hillcoat surely can and will recover. If Tom McCarthy can come back from the dreadful Cobbler with the near-perfect Spotlight in the same year, I have faith that Hillcoat will be back at the helm plumbing the depths of the soul in no time. D+