Some people would argue that in the modern world, we've lost sight of the seriousness of sin. Previous generations might have been fed a little too much of it; the Christian message of grace swamped by a doctrine of the extreme sickness of fallen man. Today, the gospel is often accused of being watered down; as if the pendulum has swung back too far the other way. If that's the case, then John Hillcoat's brutal, blood-soaked new thriller is a throwback to a theology of hellbound man.
Artily shot and packed with star names, Triple 9 is the story of a crew of men who have all chosen the wrong path, ending up as a heist team for an Israeli-Russian mobster, played somewhat unexpectedly by Kate Winslet. They're in too deep and they know it; despite successfully completing what they think will be their final job, they're forced into beginning another by their unrelenting boss. Several of them (Aaron Paul, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Anthony Mackie among them) want to stop; to step away from the life of violence in which they've become embroiled, but of course they can't. They're trapped by their sin.
Mackie plays Marcus, one of several crooked police officers on the crew, who realises that the best way to buy time for the final job would be to kill a police officer (the 'Triple 9' of the title), as doing so will draw the staff of the entire precinct to that murder, and away from their heist. They identify Marcus's new partner Chris (Casey Affleck), as the potential victim; an innocent sacrificial lamb to enable their otherwise-impossible plan.
Chris is the film's one truly sympathetic character, a crucifix-wearing idealist who still believes he can make a difference through policing. The cross around his neck isn't accidental (neither, you feel, is the pitchfork tattoo on the soul-selling Ejiofor or Winslet's constant devil-red attire); he's determined to remain a shining light in the midst of so much darkness. And while the film doesn't convince anyone that violence can be truly redemptive, it does allow for a sense of hope that good can prevail, or at least that while the light shines in the darkness, it won't be overcome.
The rest of the characters can't even aspire to Chris' hopeful reality however. Caught between the evil that they're being asked to perform and the fate that will befall them if they don't, they're fallen and can't see a way out of the hole. It's fitting that so much of the film takes place among the gang-dominated projects of Atlanta, where young gang members find themselves in the same hopeless cycle of violence and self-destruction. It's as if Hillcoat is suggesting not just that humanity is on its way to hell, but that some of us are already living there.
Chris isn't quite a saviour figure, but he does at least illuminate a different path; a different set of choices that even the young gang members he meets could make. Ultimately though, the film seems to suggest that once we've really fallen, there's no way for a person to really drag themselves back out. It's a bleak view, but it's hardly a new one.
Triple 9 isn't a perfect thriller, and arguably the degree to which its pivotal idea is executed is bordering on the implausible, but it takes an interesting, unpredictable route which is at times heart-in-mouth suspenseful. As you might expect for a film set among gangs, the language is distractingly profane, and the violence fairly constant (severed head alert). There's a healthy dose of Christian symbolism, but that's balanced by a couple of blasphemous moments. It's hardly family viewing then, but as an extreme illustration of the seriousness of sin, it'd make Spurgeon proud.
Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. You can follow him on Twitter: @martinsaunders