I want you to put away everything you’ve thought about modern crime movies since about 1970. In fact, I want you to cast your mind back to before the Hays Code forever applied a moral valence to cinema, and I want you to think about the classic crime films of the 1930s and very early 1940s. Think about crime between Little Caesar and High Sierra. This was an era of crime filmmaking where films are intensely interested in criminals and see their downfall in practical logistical terms as much as moral statements – as the code became successively ingrained, I think the moral element came to dominate. All of the classic gangsters fail because of some inherent flaw in their psychology, making them tragic rather than evil. When Tom Powers [James Cagney] is killed at the end of The Public Enemy , we recognise an inexorable chain of events formed by his nature, by his unwillingness to compromise. Most of these films would probably be regarded as dramatically aimless by modern audiences, trained to seek out the Hayes-inspired simple moral message of an essentially karmic world, but they are fascinating what-if scenarios. In my mind, this ilk of film draws its dramatic heritage from the Elizabethan or particularly the Jacobean tragedy. They are complex amoral tales that I don’t have a lot of difficulty imagining alongside the more ambivalent of Shakespeare’s heroes – Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus have always struck me as peculiarly modern, almost gangsters in effect.
Keeping in mind that frame of reference, Triple 9 is a fully-realised tragedy of consequences flowing from poor decisions and insurmountable drives. The central driver for action is the desire that Irina [Kate Winslet] has for a particular MacGuffin, and the action is parlayed out of the gang’s reluctance to work for someone they regard as untrustworthy, a mistrust only exacerbated by her unwillingness to pay for work already completed. Crucially, and in difference from the dramas created by Scorsese et al, this is not a lever applied to the dramatic fate of a particular character. There is no protagonist per se in this film, the focus is diffused over a close-knit criminal milieu. In their way, each of the criminal characters finds themselves in exactly the practical conundrum faced by those early Hays criminals – compliance is impossible, compromise is impossible, resistance is impossible. It is a grinder with no good decisions available to the characters. The pleasure that remains is not in watching their emotional journey, nor of a team of experts executing an intensively planned mission, but of the slow fragmentation of cohesion, the slow dissolution of what had been a stable scenario into chaos.
The film is relentlessly nihilistic. Its great strength is its commitment to that ethos, so different from the candy-floss rose-tinted romanticised view of the criminal underworld that devotees like Scorsese routinely deliver. It reminded me of a James Ellroy novel, but without the psycho-sexual predation which is one of his hallmarks. What it lacks, however, is empathy for its characters. The actors give their characters all they’ve got to give, but there’s no coherent attempt to understand what drives any of the characters, no scenes showing the “real” characters behind their street personas. Close relatives of this film have generally found a way of giving some space to the audience to see multiple aspects of the character in unguarded moments, in moments of braggadocio which paradoxically emphasise the inadequacy behind the street front. Even films like Rampart , which are extremely dissolute, feel like they are rooting for their characters. Think about the endless debates around morality in Training Day , which expose Alonzo’s utilitarianism and pragmatism, or the spiky frisson of tension between the detectives in Street Kings . A tragedy is never going to be fully satisfying unless you can believe in the tragic hero – which is why Coriolanus is a less effective play than Richard III. In Jenni’s phrase, it didn’t make me care about the people.
Triple 9 is a solid journeyman work in an increasingly well-trod area of crime fictions. It restores a concept and an aesthetic for the genre which had largely been forgotten by the romantics of crime cinema.