A woman's dark past intertwines with her present after an insurance agent winds up at her door.
John Hillcoat delivers a vision of the Wild West in Australia, by way of Immanuel Kant's moral philosophy.
Triple 9. 2016. Directed by John Hillcoat. Screenplay by Matt Cook.
Starring Casey Afflec, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelson, Aaron Paul, Kate Winslet, Gal Gadot, Norman Reedus, Teresa Palmer, Michael Kenneth Williams, Clifton Collins Jr, Michelle Ang, Terence Rosemore, Terri Abney, & Alexander Babara. Worldview Entertainment/Anonymous Content/MadRiver Pictures.
Rated 14A. 110 minutes.
Ever since I saw Ghosts… of the Civil Dead, director John Hillcoat was someone I found interesting. 17 years later, he made The Proposition, which is my personal favourite Western ever, and definitely one of the best contemporary Westerns of the past 20 years. Since then he pulled out a near perfect adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and also did the solid, fun Prohibition dramatic thriller Lawless. He is an interesting talent as a director, whose talent lies in getting down to the nitty gritty of his subject matter, whether that be prison, the end of the world, Prohibition heroes, or even the law.
Which is where Triple 9 comes in. Tackling a lot of different subplots at once, this is a pretty solid crime movie. Although, there are definitely a few faults. For one, the usually wonderful Kate Winslet is present giving us a Russian-American accent that is once or twice solid, then for the rest of the picture a truly abysmal element. But even with the few missteps, the screenplay from newcomer-screenwriter Matt Cook is interesting, it is suspenseful, and above all the world of dirty cops feels impressively real. The terror of being in the midst of renegade lawmen is very real in Triple 9. A good cop flick for our current times.
A gang of corrupt cops and criminals including Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie), Gabe Welch (Aaron Paul), Russell Welch (Norman Reedus), & Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jr) all find themselves indebted to the Russian mob. Particularly, because of Michael’s son with Elena Vlaslov (Gal Gadot), he’s stuck with her sister Irina (Kate Winslet), big time mobster, over his shoulder. After a bit of a botched heist, they’re expected to do one more job. A high stakes job, which will require them to pull a Triple Nine; code for when an officer is down. This will pull all units away, allowing others in the crew to infiltrate their target.
With a new cop in his precinct and as his partner, Marcus offers him up as the one to take down – Chris Allen (Casey Affleck). Only problem is that his uncle Jeffrey (Woody Harrelson) is a big name around the city in the Police Department. And with too many loose threads, a plan, no matter how good, is bound to go wrong somewhere down the line.
The action sequences are absolutely the film’s highlight. Right from the start, the opening robbery is super exciting. Especially after you see things going wrong for these guys, then figure out they’re cops. It’s a real whopper to start off the movie. Halfway through there’s a nice sequence where the police raid a Mexican gang and the action is stellar. Lots of great shots, very kinetic. On top of that, I love the film’s score from an awesome team including Bobby Krlic, Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross, and Claudia Sarne. A nice electronic, subtle score that bubbles and boils up, bouncing around just like the action. Fits things well.
The cinematography overall is fantastic, from action sequences to the lower key scenes in various locations, all framed so beautifully, so dark and vibrant. Cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis is a favourite of mine. He is responsible for the look of a top film in my books, Bullhead, as well as The Drop and recent horror Cub. His eye is good, and the texture of his camerawork is so rich. Whereas the action scenes are definitely best, some of the others where the camera is very still, exquisitely framed, fill out the other portions of the film in a nice tapestry that takes us from the dangerous streets to dingy strip clubs, secret meetings under overpasses, to alleys and crack houses, and everywhere in between. The whole movie is atmospheric. It has a dark tone, a deep moodiness about it, most of which comes from Karakatsanis and how he captures everything. As the film wears on and we hit the climax, the cinematography is much more personal, close-up, and it hones tight on everything. Whittling down much like the characters do in number.
For the most part, Cook’s screenplay is good. There’s a hole or two now and then, which is fine. Nobody’s ever made an objectively perfect movie, and even the greatest screenplays all have little messes in them. But best of all, the plot and story come together with all their various threads nicely. For a film that has a lot of focus in different directions, Cook manages to keep our attention in the right spots. Never does one subplot ever overtake the whole film’s main plot because the whole thing shifts from one act to the next until we’re left with the aftermath of these cops and their decisions. Things weave around quite a bit at times. Without spoiling anything, the cops find their plans don’t exactly work out as they’d hoped. And once things begin spinning out of control there’s no turning back – the plot will whisk you away towards a violent finale.
Triple 9 is able to stay so interesting despite its few flaws due in large part to the well rounded cast. Someone I’m huge on is Woody Harrelson, so to see him here in a nice little supporting role is great. Even his voice is fun, but the character itself is great; he is kind of sleazy, yet he’s one of the better of the lot. Just little bits make him so fun: meeting with a transsexual, played wonderfully by Michael K. Williams, and slapping her ass; picking a joint out of the garbage; snorting some drugs in the backseat of a cruiser.
Someone I love while not actually loving a whole of the movies he’s in is Anthony Mackie. I’m always rooting for him to get better roles. Here, he plays a dirty, dirty police officer. All the same, he’s not completely worthless, as his character’s at least partly conflicted sometimes. You can see him wanting to like Affleck’s character, they bond a little, and Mackie plays that role so right, with faint hesitation and plenty of emotion. On the other side is Casey Affleck, another actor I personally enjoy. He has this laid back sensibility about him, some take it as disaffected or boring, but to me it’s just his attitude. His behaviour works proper here because he’s supposed to feel apart from the other cops in the film; he’s sort of cocky, but not in a disingenuous way. Him and Mackie have nice chemistry together, as well as with Harrleson in their few scenes.
Aaron Paul is great, too. Part of his character is similar to Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad, but not the entirety. This character, Gabe, was a cop who fell off the track, like crazy. He’s a hardcore addict. And still, there’s a tiny drop of humanity in him. Paul is the perfect casting for this role because he’s able to be a dirtbag drug head and simultaneously play the character as sympathetic, honest, raw.
In addition to these solid performances, the cast is filled up with other great actors. Ejiofor gives an uncharacteristically menacing performance, proving he is not only a nice guy actor. In his brief performance, Reedus is, as usual, charismatic in his rough and rugged way. Clifton Collins Jr is another guy I always love seeing, and here he puts off his gangster cop persona just the right amount. And yes, Williams as Sweet Pea, the glamorous transsexual, is a welcomed addition even if he’s only onscreen for about a single minute. The cast makes this movie what it is. Kate Winslet adds nothing with her bad accent because she doesn’t feel menacing to me – not like Ejiofor, who strikes the right amount of scary bastard. But if it weren’t for the rest of these actors, Triple 9 would be highly mediocre crime-thriller fare.
Some reviews I’ve seen are unfair. This is definitely not one of the best crime-thrillers I’ve seen as of late. At the same time, this is still solid. The action is exciting, it will push your adrenaline in certain scenes. It is tense and rarely, if ever, lets up. Also, you have to admire some of the methods these criminals/cops use in their robberies. A few nice, innovative little pieces to add into the movie lexicon. Any decent movie about criminals, especially ones where the criminals are cops and ex-military, so on, is going to have some nice tidbits of criminal activity. For instance, just some of the small moments where they tried covering their tracks, even the fact they spoke Spanish during the first heist and those types of things were nice inclusions. One absolute positive – Hillcoat does a fine job directing here and offers up more with this feature than others will have you believe. Don’t expect the next Heat, but don’t write this off as mediocre. It’s better than that. For all its mistakes, Triple 9 is dark and engaging. Maybe in a day and age where dirty cops are all too prevalent in real life some don’t want for this type of movie. Doesn’t change the fact it’s enjoyable.
The Salvation. 2014. Directed by Kristian Levring. Screenplay by Anders Thomas Jensen & Kristian Levring.
Starring Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Eric Cantona, Mikael Persbrandt, Douglas Henshall, Michael Raymond- James, Jonathan Pryce, Alexander Arnold, Nanna Øland Fabricius, Toke Lars Bjarke, and Sean Cameron Michael. Zentropa Entertainments/Forward Films/Spier Films/F.I.L.M.S./Det Danske Filminstitut/Danmarks Radio (DR)/Nordisk Film & TV Fond/Film i Väst/Department of Trade & Industry of South Africa/MEDIA Programme of the European Union/Nordisk Film Distribution/TrustNordisk. Rated PG. 92 minutes.
I haven’t had a chance to see Kristian Levring’s Fear Me Not, starring one of my favourite actors Ulrich Thomsen. So prior to The Salvation, I’d never experienced any of his films. Two reasons I came to this film: i) it’s a Western with Mads Mikkelsen, & ii) Anders Thomas Jensen co-wrote the screenplay with Levring; I am a huge admirer of Jensen’s films, all of which feature Mikkelsen (Flickering Lights, Adam’s Apples, The Green Butchers, & most recent Men & Chicken), as well as the fact he’s written other great movies like the fabulous and touching In a Better World.
For a long time I’ve loved Westerns. There are a flood of them out there. Although, if you search through them well enough all the cream will rise to the top. The classics will always reign on high, such as Once Upon a Time in the West, The Searchers, High Noon, The Man with No Name Trilogy; then we’ve got the more contemporary, now classics like Unforgiven, The Proposition, Tombstone, and in my mind The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. So there are no shortage of Westerns, nor is there a lack of masterpieces in the genre. That being said, there are many typical Westerns, cliched to bits. Others, while not bad movies, just seem uninspired.
Along comes The Salvation. This film, from screenplay to actual screen, takes on the Western in familiar tones. But all the same, Levring and Jensen’s script tackles a Western revenge tale with an innovative twist, fresh eyes, and from a very emotional standpoint. Not to mention there are plenty of ways you can parallel this tale of the supposed American Dream in the minds of foreigners to the struggle many face today. This is a great film, it is beautiful to look at. Above all else, the actors each play a huge part in making the film come alive and raise the bar for the modern Western genre.
Danish-American settler Jon Jensen (Mads Mikkelsen) has been in the Land of the Free for a while now. He and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) have learned the language, they’ve tended their own land and looked out for one another. Plus, they seem to be integrated into the community. However, things change drastically for Jon especially once his wife Marie (Nanna Øland Fabricius) and son Kresten (Toke Lars Bjarke) finally come to live there with him.
Upon their arrival, Jon takes his family by coach back to their home. Along the way, two men, Paul (Michael Raymond-James) and Voichek (Alex Arnold), accost Jon and his family. The conversation starts as only that, conversation, but the tone changes soon enough and the two strangers take Jon’s wife/boy hostage. Kicked out of the coach, he tries to run after them. Jon comes across the murdered corpse of his son. Then further down the road, he finds the coach – one man rapes his wife while the other takes watch outside.
After taking his violent revenge against the murderous rapists, Jon finds himself at odds with the local gangster Henry Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), whose brother happens to be the aforementioned Paul. When the entire town turns their back on Jon, only his brother Peter stands by his side. That is, until Delarue’s men do the unthinkable to him, as well.
Standing against the insurmountable forces of Delarue and his henchmen, Jon Jensen is forced to take arms in order to have his revenge, or die in the process.
If you’re not immediately floored by the whole opening sequence (about the first 20 minutes), then I’m not sure what would affect your sensibilities. Fact is, without showing too much director Kristian Levring creates so much suspense, a thick and undeniably nasty tension, which drew me into the film’s world so savagely it honestly took me awhile afterwards to come back to my senses. Not only is the direction great, as well as the writing between Levring and Jensen, Mads Mikkelsen – a long time favourite of mine since his turn in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher & Pusher II: With Blood on My Hands and recently his work as Hannibal Lecter on NBC’s unusually amazing series – performs his character’s anger and woe so subtly it’s impossible to turn away from the power. I’m not trying to pit American v. European v. anywhere else actors here, not at all. However, there are certainly some (North) American actors who come to mind that are very exuberant, almost too much so at times. Especially when it comes to revenge styled movies, such as this one. For instance, even though I’m a Sean Penn fan (as an actor; not so much as a person), and I love his turn in the movie, Mystic River contains a pretty wild performance out of him – not at all times, though, in some scenes he is very much going heavy. Whereas in The Salvation, right out the gate, Mikkelsen delivers so much intensity and heartache without having to do anything overtly emphatic. He simply acts with all the emotion in him available, just seeping it out of his skin; the look on his face, his body language, the bunch of bullets he pumps into his family’s killer even after the guy is dead. And like I said, these are only the first 20 minutes (19 and a half if we’re getting specific). From there on in, Mikkelsen has lots more to do, and does it to near perfection.
Then we’ve also got Jeffrey Dean Morgan, whose performance as the big bad in this Western comes as a surprise to some. Not to me, though. Even while I’m not a huge fan of the Watchmen adaptation (it’s real good; just not as good as it should/could have been), Morgan impressed me as The Comedian. Also, my girlfriend watched a bit of Supernatural, and I found him pretty good in that. Then in the mediocre movie Texas Killing Fields, he was one of the only things I actually enjoyed a nice deal. But some people seem him as this good guy type. Maybe I’ve not watched enough of Morgan to feel that way. I see him as a guy with a dark side, even though I think he has good range. So here, in The Salvation, I was pleased to see him in a truly outright bad guy role. It doesn’t take long to figure him out, but not in a transparent way – you just feel how mean the dude is, right from his first appearance. It only gets more unpredictable and even more nasty once Morgan shows us how brutish his character Henry Delarue can become, to what level he’ll sink. Again, though, I have to say Delarue isn’t someone I could predict. There’s a moment, just before the half-hour mark (so much intensity so early), where you’ll understand exactly what I mean: I saw parts of it coming, but how he ends this confrontation is spectacularly harsh, and I couldn’t have imagined he was so cold. Not only is Delarue a bad, low man, he does have a tough presence, one of both physical and mental strength. It all sets the stage for an excellent showdown coming between Mikkelsen’s Jon Jensen and Morgan’s Henry Delarue.
Apart from the acting, Levring’s direction is what makes this film so special. Cinematographer Jens Schlosser provides us with lush visuals, from the wide open plains of the old West to the tighter, more personal scenes involving the characters and the well written dialogue of this screenplay. Schlosser has worked with Levring before on Fear Me Not, as well as served as Director of Photography on Amy Berg’s excellent/heartbreaking documentary Deliver Us from Evil (see it: an important piece of work). I find this one of the most visually exciting Western movies in recent times. John Hillcoat’s The Proposition is another amazing to look at Western from the last decade, though, that one has a gritty, more rough aesthetic. Regardless, I think this movie’s visual beauty has much to do with the emotional intensity and darkness of the subject matter/the performances. There’s a perfect contrast between how pretty the movie is and how devastating its plot and story are, it is a masterful bit of work from every angle.
Once more, I mention the script. So many revenge films are the same, just as Westerns often end up seeming after you’ve seen a ton. While The Salvation is typical in certain senses (rape-revenge setup), there are many ways in which it is not. For instance, like I mentioned earlier in my review, Levring doesn’t go and show everything full-on. Yes, much of the violence is pretty well spelled out in front of us. But I think the early bits, the rape of Jon’s wife, the murder of his boy, they were handled very well. I was very much expecting us to have to actually see Paul/Voichek humping Jon’s poor wife. Though, instead we get to see most of the after effects. This movie doesn’t glorify sexual violence, even if rape is at its core as a plot device/element. The effects and the revenge are the main point, that’s why everything brutal and nastily violent comes so early; literally, the first twenty minutes gets almost all of it out of the way, in terms of the injustice done to Jon’s family. We get lots of violent stuff after this point. Simply, it’s notable how Levring/Jensen go a different route than most would in this case. They still stick very much to the rape-revenge model, they’re just not relying on all its tropes and cliched moves to make things work. Furthermore, setting this is all in the context of Danish settler in America v. “born n’ bred” Americans is an interesting aspect, which you’re not always going to see except in a few other choice films of the genre. All in all, I’m amazed with the screenplay because I found myself unsure exactly of how things were heading to play out. Best part of the plot and story of The Salvation is how subversive it came across at times.
With a big Wild West showdown near the end that can rival some of the best, The Salvation is most definitely a 5 star film. It has guts, plus brains. Even better, the directing from Kristian Levring downplays the usual focus on the rape in order to get to the revenge. Instead, he opts to show us the savagery of the revenge at the other end on top of the heightened emotions from all the characters involved. And at times you’ll find yourself wondering exactly what is about to happen next. With the stellar performance of Mads Mikkelsen in the lead role, alongside Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Eva Green and Mikael Persbrandt in awesome roles respectively, this is a Western you can’t afford to miss. It has all the greatness of any other revenge-thriller, the heart and soul of a perfect drama. Not to mention it’s one of the best Westerns of the last two decades.