Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

3 and a half stars

Most filmmakers, if given the storyline of
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, would direct it in a linear fashion. And why not? It’s a doozy of a story: Two middle-aged brothers, both fallen upon hard times (although one, at least, with the outward appearance of success) decide to rob the mom and pop jewelry store they worked for as kids. It’s seemingly fool proof: They know the security codes, they know where the loot is stashed, they even know where the panic button is. As they see it, they get in, get the jewels and cash, get out, the store owners collect the insurance, and no one is the wiser. Oh, and one last thing: The mom and pop who own this jewelry store? Those would be their actual parents.
Great story, huh? We’ll want to see if hectoring big brother Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is able to convince weak-willed little brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) to pull off the heist and if all goes according to the deceptively simple plan.
But director Sidney Lumet, that crafty veteran of over 40 films (some, like
Network and Dog Day Afternoon, true masterpieces) has something much more interesting in mind. It’s only 10 minutes or so into the film that we see the heist—and see that it goes horribly, horribly awry.
From there, time lurches backward and forward. But because we know the outcome of Hank and Andy’s plan, the whole movie has a sickening sense of inevitability. We can’t think to ourselves, “Run away, Hank! It’s a bad plan!” when Andy lays out the details, because we already know he goes through with it—and fails miserably.
As the film continues, we see that Andy is in a largely loveless relationship with his wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) who is having an affair with Hank. We see that Hank has an emasculating ex-wife and a precocious daughter (who has been thoroughly schooled in his shortcomings). We see that Andy has an expensive drug habit—one that drains him financially and emotionally. We meet Andy and Hank’s parents (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris) both before the heist and after it. We discover that Andy has never felt loved by his father—and, as we witness a rather spectacular meltdown he has in the car, we begin to suspect that Andy’s whole plan had more to do with getting revenge on a father who never loved him and a kid brother who was unfairly doted on, than committing the perfect crime.
And so on.
In other words, Lumet is delving into people in crisis, and families in crisis, and what we do with our backs against the wall, and the anger and hubris that lead us to do very stupid things, indeed.
The acting is brilliant. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is already considered a kind of American treasure—and he plays an angry but proud man teetering on the brink of a breakdown masterfully—but I’ve always thought that Ethan Hawke was underrated. (To me, it was Hawke, not Washington, who deserved the Oscar for
Training Day—Washington deserved his for The Hurricane, but this game could go on all day.) He’s great as Hank—a character in an uneasy state of arrested development, still waiting for someone (his big brother? his daddy? his ex-wife?) to tell him how to be a man.
Of course, none of the main characters are even remotely likable. Not even the bear-like Finney as the father who begins to suspect the very worst of his own sons. And that’s the point. Lumet has directed a film that encourages us to positively wallow in the characters’ misery. He’s invented a new genre: Cinema

p.s. contrary to the evidence of these last two posts, I am not obsessed with the devil.

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