Let me explain the first five or so minutes of Triple Frontier to you, because in these first two scenes, you’ll understand the vibe of this entire movie, and the good things it does, and the bad things it does. Are you ready? GET READY.
The film opens with the introduction of retired Capt. William Miller (Charlie Hunnam, I’m still not over this man admitting to being a Jordan Peterson fan, please respect my grief at this time), who is described as having traveled the world and serving in “a bunch of places you don’t” want to go. He strides up there in his dark-wash jeans and his forearm-bearing shirt (Don’t think about how hot he still is despite his stupid opinions, Roxana!) and he tells a story about how he was in the cereal aisle of a Publix recently, “with my arm around some guy’s throat … squeezing so hard he pissed himself.” “He hadn’t moved his cart when I asked,” Miller explains, and so he attacked the guy, because:
“I was the best of the best. Able to shut down, control, manipulate all human instincts toward one goal—the completion of my mission. But the effects of committing extreme violence on other human beings are biological and psychological. That’s the price of being a warrior.”
Got that? Digested it? Understood how manly and American Miller is? Great, I’m glad. Now, in your mind, SMASH CUT to a black helicopter flying over a run-down village, above a caravan of black SUVs and motorcycles, all emblazoned with POLICIA, with Oscar Isaac inside the chopper. Metallica’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls”—a song named after an Ernest Hemingway war novel, naturally—blasts at maximum volume, and it’s Isaac who is listening to it, cool in his sunglasses and his bulletproof vest and his American authority, and no biggie, he’s just going to go fuck up this village to serve U.S. interests. Because that is good and that is patriotic and that is morally right.
How much irony is at play in Triple Frontier? That opening scene doesn’t make it seem like much, but the film from director J. C. Chandor and screenwriter Mark Boal (who has played around with these themes before, in Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker) is at its best when it goes that route—analytical and critical—instead of blindly supportive. The men in this film are not really good people, and they do mostly bad things, and their bond of brotherhood does not absolve them from moral bankruptcy and overwhelming greed. Triple Frontier is excellent when it makes that plain—when it complicates the narrative of “Men who serve this country are immediately and inherently deserving of our respect.”
A country’s interests can be self-serving and a country’s actions can be evil, and when Boal and Chandor tell that story, Triple Frontier clicks into being a well-acted ensemble piece in which individual interests are corrupted alongside national ones. The men in Triple Frontier, all retired Army Special Forces, are villains, each in their own way. Inspirational speaker Miller lectures military members about leaving for the private sector (“I have never had a feeling as pure or proud as completing a mission with our flag on my soldier. Stay where you belong”) and can name the exact number of people he’s killed. His brother Ben (Garrett Hedlund, to whom I devoted an entire series of thirsty tweets …)
by the old gods and the new, this is all my fetishes.— ≠ roxanna ≠ roxanne ≠ roxy (@roxana_hadadi) March 18, 2019
don't worry, garrett hedlund's voice is also still very hot, especially when he says dialogue like "focus guys, it's fight night!" pic.twitter.com/triMSJo2uA
… is a brawler making ends meet by fighting in the shitty local mixed-martial-arts circuit. Pilot Francisco (Pedro Pascal) has his license suspended for flying cocaine across the border. Operations guy Tom (Ben Affleck) is being squeezed for money by his ex-wife and failing as a real estate agent. And private military advisor Santiago (Oscar Isaac) rounds them all up for what seems like an easy, enticing job: travel to South America, kill a drug lord, steal $75 million from him, and return to the U.S. to better lives. No more struggling for money. No more embarrassing themselves in front of their children. These men took bullets for their country, and they took lives for their country, and they deserve more than this, Santiago says, and he’s as compelling in his arguments as any snake-oil salesman I’ve ever seen. (OK, I haven’t actually seen any snake-oil salesmen, but you get my point.)
So the men sign up. So they go down south. And of course, almost immediately, everything goes to shit. Santiago’s informant Yovanna (Adria Arjona) might not be entirely truthful with her information about how heavily the drug lord’s home is protected. Santiago himself might have different motivations and different backers than what he presented to his buddies. And there are intragroup frictions: between brothers William and Ben, between Santiago and Francisco, and between Tom and every damn body. “If you had pulled this shit when we were active duty, I would have court-martialed your ass,” Tom says to Santiago, but he—like all of the men—is swayed by the potentially massive payday, and by Santiago’s self-righteous pontificating. “Do we finally get to use our skills for our own benefit and finally change something?” Santiago asks, and when you’ve spent your whole adult life being trained to kill and to further the American agenda, how difficult is it really to shift your mindset from “This is good for my country” to “This is good for me, and hence also good for my country”? Doesn’t seem that far apart, does it?
But I must reel this in: This very good analysis of American imperialism and its devastatingly insidious effects on the individuals it ensnares into its web is only, like, half of Triple Frontier. The other half of Triple Frontier walks this idea back, tries to argue that the bonds of brotherhood between the men are also worthwhile and respectable, and that is where the film falters. In its inability to make up its mind about what it’s trying to say, Triple Frontier demonstrates the worst tendencies of Boal’s work, which can be brutal just for brutality’s sake (Detroit, anyone?). And that then dulls the razor-sharpness of Chandor’s direction (who has otherwise made a career dissecting institutions of power, as in Margin Call and A Most Violent Year) and Roman Vasyanov’s gorgeous cinematography. The film feels 10 or 15 minutes too long, and the ending is unconscionable in its rah-rah sincerity. “We got what we deserved,” one of the men says toward the end of the film, but its actual conclusion undermines that statement, putting the whole ideology of the film into question.
I can understand that Triple Frontier will be boring to some—hell, I know Chandor’s A Most Violent Year was like pulling teeth for some people—and I appreciate that our very own Kate Hudson was popping into my tweet thread Sunday night to resolutely voice her “This movie is hella uninteresting” stance. But I think the parts of Triple Frontier that explore the fluidity of the borders between concepts like nationalism and neocolonialism are quite good, and the ensemble cast is very strong—yes, even Affleck!—and there is a particular scene, where Hedlund’s Ben goes a little haywire and starts burning stacks of money, that is beautifully shot and an insightful distillation of the meaninglessness of their entire mission.
If only that had been the whole movie.
Triple Frontier is screening in select theaters around the U.S. and started streaming on Netflix on March 13.
Image sources (in order of posting): Netflix Media Center, Netflix Media Center, Netflix Media Center, Triple Frontier/Netflix