Even when John Hillcoat is making a more conventional movie, a Hollywood movie, you can see his mean streak.
The Australian director is back with a new film this weekend, Triple 9, and that's a cause for celebration. Normally, filmmakers as vicious as Hillcoat, whose work refuse to spare you the gruesome details of a harsh world, work on the fringes. And while Hillcoat got his start in the independent film scene, he has made the transition to big budget filmmaking mostly intact, drawing major actors to his projects and then subjecting them to all kinds of menace and mayhem. Hillcoat's films take place in cruel worlds, but they always center on characters who understand their world and know its cruelty all too well. If they aren't on the receiving end, they're dishing it out. And there are never any apologies -- in the filmography of John Hillcoat, you roll with the punches, especially when they're being delivered to your face.
Hillcoat has a narrow vision, but he operates well within it. He excels when he is called upon to utilize his particular toolset. His films are about lawless lands and how someone lives in a world without structure. His films punish those who enter these wastelands without the the skills necessary for survival. There is disdain for those who think they can impose structure on what cannot be tamed.
There is admiration for those who know how to survive. Charlie Burns, the protagonist of The Proposition, is a typical Hillcoat hero...in that he's barely a hero at all. He's our POV character, our guide through a rough and deadly landscape, and because he's so good at surviving and because he showcases a competence that the more morally balanced characters lack, we can't help but admire him. Similar rules apply to the Man (Viggo Mortensen) in The Road and Forrest Bondurant (Tom Hardy) in Lawless. These are man sharpened by a rotten world, but they've managed to keep standing while so many fall. Does Hillcoat find his characters approachable or decent? No, but he knows that cinema was built to watch people who are good at what they do, and these characters are all exceptional survivors.
And yet, all of these characters share a similar weakness: family. The Proposition follows an outlaw tasked with hunting down his older brother to save his younger sibling. The Man in The Road would probably find surviving the post-apocalypse far easier if he didn't have to care for his young son. And Forrest? Well, he's a crook through and through, but he sees his work as a family business and you do not mess with his family business.
This shared weakness hints at the soft underbelly of Hillcoat's work and his interest in the souls of hardened men. From the outside looking in, he makes movies powered by testosterone and sweat and grit and gore, but his hyper-masculine storytelling masks a deeper concern. The laws of civilization, the rule of law, and the artificial constructs of society don't matter. They don't exist in the Australian Outback of The Propostion. The evaporated into anarchy years before the action in The Road begins. And the only law that matters in Lawless are lines drawn between allies and enemies because the police don't matter much in the backwoods criminal underworld of the American south. The only thing that does matter, the only thing that cuts through the constructs that come and go with whoever happens to be in charge, is blood. The blood shared by a father and a son, or a husband and wife, or a scattered family members whose loyalty is tested by the impossible.
Triple 9 has received mixed reviews, but the familiar elements are all there -- it is still very much a Hillcoat movie. Families bound by blood and families forged through trial find themselves tested in world where the rules don't matter. And through John Hillcoat's lense, the Atlanta, Georgia of his new film has more in common with the wild wastelands of his previous films than the actual city. Nothing matters...except for the few things that do matter.