The plot synopsis for Triple 9 barely stretches beyond a line – corrupt cops on the payroll of Russian mobsters. But director John Hillcoat (The Road, Lawless) packs the film with enough pulpy flavor and tension to transform the routine into something deep and perhaps even profound.

Blotches of red regularly splatter the blacks and greys of the ruins of suburban Atlanta in the US state Georgia in which the film is set. In this wasteland in which Russians seem to control the administration, neighbourhoods are divided along ethnic lines. With corrupt police officers and former special forces operatives more loyal to their mob bosses than to the public, two heists are hatched. Both have to do with thefts that will release information precious to Irina (Kate Winslet), the wife of a jailed Russian gangster, and both will test the gang’s loyalties to each other and their levels of ruthlessness.

Plenty of blood is spilled in the movie, but the first red splash occurs during an early heist. Crimson powder used to mark stolen banknotes gets released during a mid-town car chase, the first of many occasions on which cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis will transform routine action scenes into vivid metaphors for the moral abyss in which the plot functions. In a nod to Macbeth, the colour proves difficult to wash off.

Splashes of bubble-gum pink and sunshine yellow similarly lead to a trail of doom for the amoral and unlikeable men and woman who kill at will. Chris (Casey Affleck) and his uncle Jeffery (Woody Harrelson) are the last honest men standing in town, but the movie’s memorable characters are its vilest, including Winslet’s heartless mafia queen and the gang of thieves, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Clifton Collins Jr and Anthony Mackie.

Matt Cook’s screenplay gets bogged down by overly intricate and often preposterous plotting towards the last bits, but Hillcoat is mostly in control of the high-wire balancing act. Even a short sauna scene is suffused with premonition. Karakatsanis’s tight framing increases the sense of dread of something terrible that is going down, and the sky-high body count completes the picture of Hell on earth.