‘Triple 9’ director John Hillcoat explores the dark side of society

Kate Winslet plays a ruthless Russian mobster in John Hillcoat’s “Triple 9.”
Kate Winslet plays a ruthless Russian mobster in John Hillcoat’s “Triple 9.” Open Road Films

John Hillcoat doesn’t sound like an Armageddon-obsessed pessimist.

On the phone from Los Angeles he comes off as friendly, chatty and enthusiastic about his latest project, “Triple 9” (opening Friday), an epic crime drama that feels a lot like Michael Mann’s 1995 “Heat.”

Still, Hillcoat admits that his films represent “a slightly disturbing view of life … but I believe at the same time it’s a realistic view.”

The Australian/Canadian director made his mark with 2005’s “The Proposition,” a Down Under “Western” about a savage family of outlaws. He followed that up with 2009’s “The Road,” a horrifying but weirdly moving adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer-winning novel about a father and son wandering a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

The closest he has come to upbeat moviemaking was 2012’s “Lawless,” about a Southern clan of Prohibition-era bootleggers.

In “Triple 9” — police radio code for 999: “officer down” — Hillcoat and screenwriter Matt Cook concentrate on a ruthlessly efficient criminal gang.

Two of the bandits (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Norman Reedus) are former special forces members who now use their skills to rob banks on behalf of the Russian mob. Others on the team (Anthony Mackie, Clifton Collins Jr.) are corrupt police detectives who use their insider status to pave the way to big scores and to cover the tracks of their criminal colleagues.

The only “good” guys in sight are a tough veteran cop (Woody Harrelson) and his detective nephew (Casey Affleck), whose incorruptibility puts them on a collision course with the robbers.

“After ‘The Road’ I was craving for color, for urban environments full of people and lots of energy,” Hillcoat said. “That’s what attracted me to this script.”

“Triple 9” was shot in Atlanta. The state of Georgia offers tax credits of up to 30 percent on productions shot in the state, and Hillcoat said it’s all about money.

“Atlanta is like a Hollywood backlot,” he said. “Everyone is shooting there even though their films are set in another city.

“Our script originally was set in Los Angeles, but it became a huge stroke of luck to move it to Atlanta. It feels like a fresh location, one with lots of history. Personally I’ve always been fascinated by the history of the South. It’s been the field for so many battles.”

There’s another reason Atlanta was so appealing: The battles for control of the criminal underworld have been settled in other major metropolitan areas but are still raging in Atlanta.

“In L.A. the battles already have been fought and settled, with the Latino cartels at the top. In the Eastern cities the Italians have been in charge for decades. But Atlanta is still up for grabs.”

That element of the story is represented by Kate Winslet as the head of the local Russian mob. The British actress is positively scary as a mobster seemingly without a sympathetic bone in her body.

“Of course, I knew how brilliant an actress she is,” Hillcoat said. “She’s great at accents, very detailed and so emotionally real in everything she does. Plus I believe that villains are the juiciest roles for great actors.

“So it was a mutual thrill. I was thrilled to have her, but I hadn’t anticipated how thrilled she would be to play this heavy. She really pushed me to ignore vanity, to light her any way I liked. Kate even used deliberately harsh makeup to give her a hardness.

“This is a performance you don’t easily forget.”

Also hard to forget is the film’s depiction of a society awash in corruption. It’s hard to know just who to root for in “Triple 9’s” world, where good guys are only slightly less bad than the villains.

“You may think the idea of former special forces members turning to crime is far-fetched, but it’s a fact,” Hillcoat said. “A lot of these paramilitary groups have strong connections with the drug world.

“I spoke to the head of the FBI in Atlanta, and he said the problem is that because the stakes are so high everyone is getting corrupted. High level FBI and DEA members have been turned. And then you have former KGB and Mossad security forces looking for other opportunities. Those opportunities are often criminal.”