Indie film and Hollywood are still two very separate worlds. One puts out smaller films where the filmmaker’s artistic vision is key; the other is filming three Avatar sequels back-to-back-to-back in an attempt to give James Cameron complete control of the Earth’s economy. Yet a strange overlap exists between these two extremes, and it’s one that’s been growing in recent times.
Where does one categorize 12 Years a Slave? Its cast is a staggering list of star actors and its budget was in the eight digit range, yet it released under Fox Searchlight (Fox’s go-to distributor for indie films) and had one of those newfangled limited releases that don’t go to movies trying to bring in copious amounts of dough.
Those who inhabit this odd gray area- your Steve McQueens, Terrence Malicks and Alexander Paynes- often become minor celebrities in their own right (many times have we seen the groupies desperate for Malick to pen his autograph on their body and/or children). Yet there’s another director with the same laurels, who makes top-quality films with that weird “best of both worlds” mixture, that lacks the same star power: John Hillcoat.
His last three efforts have all been knockouts. The Proposition, The Road and Lawless all masterfully balance the same elements: unrelentingly grim and gruesome violence given a tiny bit of sugarcoating through familial love. The Road gets its miniscule hint of sweetness from the father/son bond. The Proposition and Lawless both go the “multiple brothers” route to break up long sequences of graphic head explosions with the occasional group hug.
But it’s Triple Nine, Hillcoat’s upcoming feature, that may finally propel its director into a slot among our most revered “not quite Hollywood, not quite indie” hybrid filmmakers. The story isn’t drastically different from anything he’s done before — here, a group of crooks prepare to kill a cop (a “triple nine” is the police code for an officer down) in order to divert the authorities from a heist that’ll be going down at the same time. There’s sure to be harsh violence, and there’s sure to be some bond between either the cops or the crooks or both, fitting Triple Nine in with the rest of Hillcoat’s filmography.
But this film’s got one key advantage: a cast where every single member is currently riding a career high. Already on board are Christoph Waltz and Cate Blanchett (as was Charlie Hunnam, at one point) as the doomed cop’s uncle and the head criminal’s Lady Macbeth-like wife, but the newest scoop has three more actors in talks for major roles. Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael B. Jordan are all new additions, with Affleck as the marked-for-death cop, Ejiofor as the head crook and Jordan as Affleck’s partner, who’s in on the heist and will do a little double-crossing.
As those who regularly read this site will know, all the buzz around 12 Years a Slave (roughly 80 billion bumblebees’ worth) originated from two places. There was the previous hype around McQueen’s last feature, Shame, and there was the film’s ridiculously stacked cast, several of whom (Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch) had just ascended to the tippy-top of the A-list. Triple Nine lacks the former, as last year’s Lawless failed to find its footing with those who give out awards. Yet in the latter it seems magically predestined to make waves.
Waltz has been riding high ever since Inglorious Basterds. This year, Blanchett has Blue Jasmine. Ejiofor has 12 Years a Slave. Jordan’s got Fruitvale Station, and has been listed for the 2015 Fantastic Four reboot almost as long as there’s been a Fantastic Four reboot. Next year, Affleck will have a part in Interstellar, which is sure to be the center of attention for everyone and everything come next November. Affleck and Jordan count as legitimate rising stars, whilst the other three are merely original flavor stars, yet all are huge right now. As well, Blue Jasmine, 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station are guaranteed to bring their respective actors a small battleship of little gold statuettes. And as a bonus, every movie news outlet in existence will be repeating their names on a regular basis for as long as awards are being given out this year.
When all this press turns to the next film from each respective actor, Triple Nine is all set to clean up. Now all Hillcoat needs is to make sure Triple Nine is great enough to warrant a potential media onslaught, with flocks of reporters circling the film like vultures around so much half-eaten zebra. Yet that’s not really something to worry about. One of Hillcoat’s biggest strengths is his ability to maneuver an actor into a terrific performance (he got an admirable starring turn out of Shia LaBeouf, after all), and with so much talent on board, Triple Nine should be a walk in the park. It’ll just be a very somber park, with dead guys and guns and dirt mixed with blood. And statues. Probably statues.