By Paul Risker.
“Bare bones thrown to a hungry dog…do nothing to appease its hunger.” – Thich Nhat Hanh, Thundering Silence: Commentaries on the Sutra on Knowing the Better Way to Catch a Snake (2009).
On the surface it may feel strange to see such a philosophical thought in a film review of John Hillcoat’s superficial heist film Triple-9 (2016). Yet the words of Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh are intrinsic to the way we should perceive not only a film, but the arts more broadly. Andris Nelsons, musical director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, has echoed these words, describing music as “Nourishment to the soul.” The truth is whether a film, a piece of music, a literary work, a painting or a photograph, we are drawn to art for nourishment. And so, Thich Nhat Hanh’s Zen teaching is one that resides at the very heart of the responsibility of the filmmaker and their creative brethren. Although in a subjective world nourishment is inevitably a point of contention within the discussion of cinema. In life there is the never-ending preaching of the need for a balance between healthy and unhealthy dietary sustenance. And yet it is cultural sustenance that can feed our emotional, spiritual and intellectual health, and yet which often suffers a lack of consideration as it is subjugated to other more pressing concerns.
It was in conversation with Charlotte Chandler that Billy Wilder spoke about having those essential scenes required to tell the story pinned to the wall. From there the screenwriter has to search for the transitionary scenes that thread this essential group together – a bricks and mortar approach perhaps? In spite of this methodical approach to narrative, scenes in Wilder’s films bled into one another to provide it a seemingly organic and conscious self-determination. In contrast Hillcoat’s Triple-9 has an artificial feel, the individual set-piece and transitionary scenes – few of the latter – exposing the rectangular brick pattern beneath its surface. The gift of Wilder and many other filmmakers before or since has been to create an artificial structure and illusory organic feel. The visibility of Triple-9’s artificial structure compounds its inability to escape the clutches of mediocrity, a familiar tale of corrupt cops entrapped in a cycle of high-risk heists that leaves one to inquire not the reason per say, but the need for its existence. One feels a lack of courage from either Hillcoat or screenwriter Matt Cook to imbue the film with personality, nor to hide themselves behind its lacklustre tightly-knit structure. It is a film that emphasises the skill of filmmaker J.C. Chandor to bring something unique to his genre picture A Most Violent Year (2014), wherein he successfully subverted the routine expectations encouraged by the film’s own marketing campaign.
The Proposition (2005) and The Road (2009) reflect Hillcoat as a director not without pedigree, exhibiting a tenacity on a technical level. Both films were helmed by a director with a visual eye, the lens of his camera a window onto the world of his characters. He has the ability to capture the range of sensibility from quiet sombreness and gentle emotion to the ferociousness of the dramatic. And Triple-9 is infused with Hillcoat’s ease of creating suspense and his visual fluidity and technical precision. Yet Hillcoat is a director who is excessively reliant on his collaborators. The Proposition was scripted by musician-cum-novelist Nick Cave, who extended his role to composing the score alongside frequent collaborator Warren Ellis, and the two would also compose the music for The Road. Meanwhile in front of the camera both films had heavyweight performances from their respective casts. In each case Hillcoat was a single component of a number of parts that merged to create a gravitas. Here in Triple-9 the well has seemingly ran dry, a first-time screenwriter and a cast that struggled to follow in the footsteps of Hillcoat’s previous director-actor collaborators. The actor of interest of the ensemble cast is perhaps Casey Affleck, who contributes the most noteworthy performance. However, a mention should be given to Clifton Collins Jr. (as Franco Rodriguez) who turns in a memorable performance over the film’s A-list names Kate Winslet and Woody Harrelson. While it is possible to discern the natural archetypal attraction of each role for Winslet and Harrelson respectively, Irina Vlaslov and Jeffrey Allen will remain minor and forgettable dalliances in two careers with performances and characters more worthy of our attention.
Affleck remains at least in my mind a curious actor. He should have rightly made his presence more significantly felt in the years following his impressive performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), and backed up by a solid performance in Gone Baby Gone (2007). Since then, he has been a minor presence, giving us cause to lament his spectre like presence. He remains an actor with an emotional range, channeled through moments that rely on gestures, body language and eccentric ticks less than dialog. It is difficult to articulate the impression Affleck offers or rather I have subjectively picked up on, as I would not want to be so presumptuous as to assume my view as the representative perspective of the majority. Looking upon Affleck I find myself considering how there is the person you see upon the screen, behind which lurks an apparition. Look upon him or look into his eyes and you can sense that beneath the outward appearance there is a complex series of rhythms that create the tone of his stand-out performances. Perhaps the best way to describe Affleck is to liken him to a musical instrument, which has the capability to be played in the minor or major key and to play a range of notes to craft the specific rhythm called for. Or could Steve Reich’s minimalist work Music for 18 Musicians (1976) be a useful way to contextualise performers like Affleck, wherein performance is comprised of individual rhythms that interlock with other rhythms? If so these individual rhythms bleed into one another to mask the minimalism of performance, the great performances of actors a form of musical composition.
Outside of philosophising on the art of performance, the appraisal in the opening of this review raises the question of the expectations of a film. A form of entertainment, film can achieve the lofty status of helping us to understand ourselves and the world we live in. If religion has guided human civilisation in the pursuit of understanding, then it is a reasonable conclusion that film and more broadly art should be perceived as having a divine status. While it is possible for film to combine entertainment and meaning, Triple-9’s prerogative is one of exclusive entertainment – offering what could be described as a momentary one hundred minutes of pleasure that exceeds even its need. There is of course nothing incorrect in this approach as cinema should not narrow its focus on the intellectual and emotional over escapism. Although care is needed to not misperceive the layers within escapist cinema. While it can be seen as emotional owing to the impulse sensation blockbusters provoke, it can offer a thoughtfulness through the incorporation of certain themes. It therein requires the consideration of the emphasis on a more versus less centralised thrill impulse, the former like endorphins that stimulate an impulsive positive feeling. In light of Terence Davies’ point about how a film “has to either survive or die” once it goes out into the world, by offering momentary escapist pleasure, with no stimulus for post-contemplation, Triple-9 dies soon after the credits roll.
One fundamental truth within a democratic and free world is that the ability of a film to find an audience (no matter the size) gives it cause for existence. And so Triple-9 should not be damned for offering a momentary pleasure to an approving audience, some of whom include critics such as Time Out’s Tom Huddleston in a 15 February review. In an exercise of reaction over contemplation, the former the less serious form of film criticism, Huddleston describes the film as “Tight, taut and brilliantly structured.” In his urgent pursuit of a superlative, he has thrown proverbial caution to the wind, which in turn has left his reference to the “brilliantly structured” narrative susceptible to an oversight on his part. At the film’s close Harrelson’s final decisive act contradicts his characters construction throughout. While capable of moments of impulsive behaviour, he remains a character generally governed by his moral self and commitment to the law. And so this frames his final decisive act as one out of synch with his character. In all fairness to Huddleston he does observe: “The characterisation may be a touch thin” and while he accurately observes Triple-9’s tight structure, his failure to observe the issues with one main character’s construction is an oversight. And with this particular failure occurring at the film’s close, it invariably compromises any perceived structural brilliance, suggestive of the poor orchestration of the writer and director to reach a finish that is the culmination of everything that has preceded it. What is intriguing is that in response to weak characterisation, he seemingly offers an excuse when he writes: “But the moments of tension are powerfully handled – a late-in-the-day heist sequence is nailbiting – and when it all explodes into inevitable violence, we’re right there in the trenches.” Huddleston’s words and reading of the film are emblematic of the stagnant and otherwise momentary experience. There has not been any significant forward movement in his contemplation of the film, post-experience. Rather he pursues latent statements, littering his writing with dramatic prose, specifically in response to the cast that serves no purpose.
Psychological theory states that in order to mature we must have experiences, and these experiences are intrinsic to the construction of our sense of self. A film is made to be seen and experienced – the audience a co-creator. But if a film offers a momentary pleasure that creates no post-contemplation and therein memories, then it deprives itself a sense of self or identity. Any film without an authentic memory or sense of self works in counter to the reason that we watch a film for a form of nourishment. And returning to the words of Thich Nhat Hanh opening this review, Triple-9 represents a branch of cinema in opposition to the importance of seeking out experiences with a reciprocative value – to create a memory and not a cultural vacuum.
But if the casualty is inflicted to both the audience as well as the film through self-harming, then the overriding impression herein remains a reckless and carefree attitude towards the heist film. While studios and distributors preach the evils of piracy, which is a legitimate concern, Triple-9 seems to have little sense of conscience when it comes to supporting a film that undermines the heist movie. Cinema is often consumed by the capitalist machine, hence there are a percentage of films that are green lit each year in order to fulfil a quota of product for distribution. But there is an emphasis on communal responsibility towards the heist genre that has been neglected here – a genre contributed to and nurtured with care by the likes of Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955), Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur (1956) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970), Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) amongst many others. Triple-9 therein could be boiled down to what is in essence an act of cinematic sacrilege whose consequences are more culturally and philosophically severe.
Triple-9 was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on 27th June 2016 by Entertainment One.
Paul Risker is an independent scholar and film critic who contributes regularly to Film International. He is an Editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, which will launch in Fall 2016.