When I was younger I used to be obsessed with war films. I’m not sure if it was because I connected to history as a subject at school or I appreciated the visceral nature of them despite the fact i probably didn’t even know what visceral meant. Regardless I loved them. Now I’m older I still appreciate them but I find it hard to find the same kind of connection I did in my teens. You might ask why this relates to Triple Frontier, a film that riffs off of war films but isn’t really one. Well it might just be because by concentrating on, but never really playing into the notion of war, JC Chandor’s latest film is a look into the idea of a soldier and the masculinity that accompanies the notion of brotherhood.
Triple Frontier follows Santiago (Oscar Issac), an ex soldier working as a law enforcement specialist in South America. When he gets wind of where a drug lord is stashing his cash he assembles a team of his old friends to take him out and steal the money. Back home his former team members try to adapt to a more mundane life but when the opportunity comes about they jump at the chance to change their circumstances despite the risks.
While Chandor and Triple Frontier in general is trying to tell a story on three fronts, one about the nature of war, one about the almost familial bond that comes through conflict and the other about the brutalising effect of the drug trade. The only problem with this is that as a scathing indictment of the drug trade and its effect on people’s lives, it doesn’t work. It rotates through a series of played out clichés while avoiding any sense of reality as to avoid offending or saying anything that can be construed as offensive. The 12A nature of the film means that it can’t take the real risks that are required for a story like this.
What makes this Ben Affleck starring film work is how it treats it’s characters, how it gives them both the space to breathe and also throws them into situations that dislodges them from their preconceived notions of morality. All throughout, the clan of warriors bounce off each other, both because of their suspect choices but by their differing ideas of where they are and what they are doing. These are unique, complicated people who constrict and push against each others issues and mistakes. Each one of them is hiding some kind of hypocrisy for the others to pick apart, much like a family. The lies they tell each other propel the film as the mission degrades and the mistakes they make come back to haunt them.
Much like Chandor’s prior films, it is beautifully shot and each small moment is designed with a clear intent, either to build tension or raise questions about the fraying relationships. It might be a well thought out discussion of masculinity and how the bonds we share influence our decisions and our futures but most of all, it is a well-directed, free-flowing action extravaganza. Written and shot as a heist movie, Chandor wants his audience to see the distinction his characters fail to see until it is too late. These so-called ‘warriors’ are actually thieves. They might be capable of acts of violence so precise because of their pasts, but now they aren’t hiding behind the protective mask of a government, they are doing this for themselves.
While the buildup to the mission is an all too brief section of reprieve from the conflict and links these people to one another, Chandor seeks to tear them apart. However where one film zigs, this one zags. While Santiago and co contend with a situation of their own making, the film raises the notion of their infighting to push the idea of their own collapse but Chandor seems more intent on telling a story about a dysfunctional family, but a family none the less. One that can argue, complain and feel together while still understanding each others problems.
Triple Frontier never once loses sight of what makes its characters human but most of all it doesn’t forget the excitement that keeps things moving. Everything is done in one fluid motion, playing into the Oceans Eleven idea of a slick heist, a smartly drawn plan that collapses under a wealth of greed and bad choices. It might have a lot to say under the surface but even up top, in the thick of it, Chandor knows how to wage war and make it look great doing it.