Grit, grime with no payoff in ‘Triple 9’

The power of films like “Children of Men” and “Room” (which I would have chosen for Best Picture over “Spotlight,” but whatever) rests in how they juxtapose soul-suckingly awful situations with tiny glimmers of hope, as the latter adds weight to the former.

Director John Hillcoat’s “The Road” pulled this off fairly well in 2008, which followed a father and his young son as they journeyed through a post-apocalyptic hellscape rife with bandits and cannibals. It worked because there was a light, however faint, at the end of the tunnel at the film’s conclusion.

Unfortunately, Hillcoat’s most recent effort, “Triple 9,” instead opts to wallow in misery for the entirety of its runtime, letting us know, in clumsy ways, just how gross it thinks the world is in. There are glimpses of something more here, but it never comes together into anything satisfying.

Chris (Casey Affleck) is a fresh face at an Atlanta police precinct who gets partnered up with Marcus (Anthony Mackie). What Chris doesn’t know is that Marcus is a professional bank robber on the side who plans to set up his partner’s death to draw police attention away from his next big job.

The ensemble cast acted as the major marketing push for “Triple 9,” and for good reason. Affleck and Mackie are joined by talented, recognizable faces such as Woody Harrelson, Norman Reedus, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Gal Gadot and Kate Winslet, among others.

It’s disappointing that such a great cast was given such mediocre material. The dialogue, in particular, is atrocious at times, as Harrelson’s hard-nosed detective at one point asks someone to be careful about what they “InstaGoogleTweetFace.”

An adequate script wouldn’t save this dull, stale narrative, though. There’s precious little tension or intrigue to this collection of scenes where sweaty, cursy dudes do shady things in seedy locales.

The most damning part of “Triple 9” is its depiction of everyday police work. Affleck and Mackie spend a great deal of time investigating a variety of ethnic stereotypes, most of whom are conveniently armed or otherwise hostile to the cops.

In a world where unarmed people of color are disproportionately killed by cops, it’s irresponsible to push a narrative where minorities are all packing heat or they all have inside dirt on criminal activities. It doesn’t help that Affleck’s character (who we are supposed to like, I think) is needlessly aggressive to them on occasion.

It’s fine (some would say necessary) for sympathetic characters to have flaws, but “Triple 9” gives us nobody worth rooting for. Our main choices are Affleck’s trigger-happy idiot cop or Ejiofor, whose character once belonged to Blackwater, a real-life private military company notorious for warzone debacles.

If only “Triple 9” was deserving of its strong aesthetic. The grimy, menacing locations are often shot well, which is only bolstered by an omnipresent, bassy synth soundtrack that I couldn’t help but enjoy.

Darkness is only interesting if we’re given an opportunity to compare it to light. “Triple 9” ignores this, showing us a world so bleak that it’s ultimately as boring as could be.