John Hillcoat’s Triple 9 starts out as a heist film and drags itself through the mud to become something of a psychological thriller. Although it ropes in any number of bad-boy action-movie tropes — an icily malevolent Kate Winslet as a Russian femme fatal, stacks of cash rigged with exploding dye, gangsters calmly walking away from vehicles just before they explode, and Woody Harrelson are an amoral, physically revolting cop — it never settles for tickling the audience’s inner 11-year-old boy.
The middle third can be a bit challenging to follow at times, but Triple 9 is an artfully shot crime film based around the police code for a cop who’s been shot, and it weaves together several narrative strands of the criminal underworld. It’s set in Atlanta (where costar Norman Reedus has decapitated more than a few zombies in The Walking Dead) but it’s a grittier side of the city, more Lakewood than Buckhead.
SF Weekly talked to the Australian director about his choice of setting, and how a movie with such a murky distinction between right and wrong differs from his previous work, and how Woody Harrelson’s character (who digs a mostly smoked joint out of discarded Chinese food cartons) shaped up.
SF Weekly: First off, Triple 9 is a beautifully shot film.
John Hillcoat: Thank you. I had a great D.P. While working, I wanted a very different energy, something very rich and moody and colorful. I’m glad you picked that up.
SFW: How deliberate was Atlanta as the choice of setting?
JH: Initially, that was financial. [Georgia] was the most attractive rebate state with a big city, but then it became a primary character, and really transformative. So that was one of those very lucky accidents. (Initially, it was set in L.A.) Much more in terms of the richness of color and the energy of the place, it freed things up from the L.A-West Coast and the East Coast crime film.
SFW: Are you a big fan of The Wire? It feels more like Baltimore than Atlanta.
JH: I’m a huge Wire fan, and I think a lot of these modern-day, lower-socioeconomic neighborhoods, and the struggles in the criminal landscape, are very similar in terms of the drug war that’s being lost on the street every day and the different pecking orders. But yes, The Wire was an influence
SFW: In contrast with your last well-known film, 2009’s The Road —which has such a clear distinction between good and evil — Triple 9 is morally ambiguous.
JH: I was meant to this film after The Road and before Lawless, and itching to do exactly that: looking at the sea of humanity out there in the world of crime. All those shades of gray and all that murkiness.
SFW: How would you describe it in terms of genre? Would you call it a crime thriller?
JH: A crime thriller in the sense that there’s so many different characters. Like The Wire, we wanted a look and a group of people — as opposed to that Altmanesque way of feeling the milieu of life. There’s definitely a psychological element in terms of the mood and the noir color, noir feeling.
I always do try to mess with genre to try to get, I was very inspired with how in the ’70s they took these great genres and shook them up, so dramatically reinvigorated them. I also love the classical golden age of genre. So the challenge for me was to find ways to make it more unexpected and fresh again.
SFW: Woody Harrelson’s character is a little hard to like, but he still has that goofball charm.
JH: We wanted quite a departure from True Detective, where he was going against type. We wanted to literally make him quite messy, even the wardrobe, the bad taste in clothes. We deliberately messed around with that and he was great for being that to it all.