Thursday, December 06, 2007
Film Review: "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"
Robbing a Mom and Pop Store, Too Close to Home
By A. O. SCOTT
The New York Times
Published: October 26, 2007
The grim lesson of “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is delivered by an elderly jewelry dealer sitting in a tiny, dark room somewhere in the diamond district of Manhattan. “The world is an evil place,” he declares, with the authority of someone who has seen and done plenty of bad things. “Some people make money from it, and some people are destroyed by it.”
“Devil,” directed by Sidney Lumet from a script by Kelly Masterson, is a chronicle of destruction — physical, spiritual and moral. That most of the victims and most of the perpetrators are members of a single family gives the story some of the suffocating fatalism of an ancient tragedy. But the workings of fate figure far less in the narrative than bad choices and unlucky accidents. The evil in this world arises not out of any grand metaphysical principle, but rather from petty, permanent features of the human character: greed, envy, stupidity, vanity. There are no demons on display, just small, sad, ordinary people. The filmmakers rigorously tally the results of their sins, minor lapses made monstrous by the failure of love and the corruption of ambition. Simple, familiar desires — for money, sex, status, respect — end in murder.
Murder, indeed, is where the story begins, with sex providing a teasing, tawdry prologue. A robbery at a suburban jewelry store shatters the quiet of a Saturday morning with gunfire, breaking glass and the squealing tires of a getaway car. We will witness this crime a few more times, from different points of view, as Mr. Lumet backs up and goes over it again, drawing out its every consequence and implication.
The robbery was planned by Andy Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who enlisted his younger brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke), to carry it out. The dead body on the sidewalk belongs to Bobby Lasorda (Brian F. O’Byrne), a small-time hood Hank recruited for the dirty work. The saleswoman bleeding on the floor is Nanette Hanson (Rosemary Harris), Andy and Hank’s mother and the owner, with their father, Charles (Albert Finney), of the store her sons decided to hold up.
What kind of people would do such a thing? Mr. Lumet, who has been directing movies for 50 of his 83 years, has the wisdom to leave the answer mainly to his actors. Andy and Hank are not explained, dissected or excused. They speak their lines and carry out their actions, and, by the time the film is over, we know them inside and out.
Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman in THINKFilm's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" - 2007
We know that Andy’s marriage to Gina (Marisa Tomei) has hit a snag, that Gina is sleeping with Hank, and that, aside from their affair, Hank’s shrunken life includes a furious ex-wife (Amy Ryan), a young daughter and a collection of nervous tics. He is weak and indecisive — “a baby” to both Andy and Charles — and probably the last person you would trust to carry out a robbery. If you gave him a quarter to feed the meter, you’d end up with a parking ticket and a stream of pathetic apologies.
But Andy is sure he has everything figured out. A real estate accountant with a high-end drug habit and pathetic fantasies about moving to Brazil, he tends to overestimate his intelligence and underestimate his desperation. He is a cold, shallow, angry man, one of the least likable guys Mr. Hoffman, a specialist in acutely observed male unpleasantness, has ever played. Andy bullies Hank mercilessly, lies to his employers and seems to experience minimal remorse after his perfect crime goes horribly awry. And yet, while never for a moment soliciting our empathy, Mr. Hoffman makes us care about this man, the scale of whose ethical failures gives him a kind of negative grandeur. Besides, his self-hatred makes our disapproval seem a bit redundant.
Mr. Lumet takes what might have been a claustrophobic genre exercise and gives it both moral weight and social insight. His great New York movies of the 1970s and ’80s — “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Prince of the City,” “Q & A” — were realist fables, often based on true stories and always full of dense local knowledge. “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is relentlessly focused on the terrible events of a few days, but as it zigzags back and forth in time it takes in a larger, longer story, a history of upward mobility and family displacement.
Some time in the past, a tough New York diamond cutter and his wife moved out to Westchester, where they raised three kids (Hank and Andy have a sister) and ran a nice little business. How that modest little dream begat the nightmare of Hank and Andy’s violent fall is an intriguing blank space, a latter-day Theodore Dreiser novel lurking in the shadows of an updated Jim Thompson noir.
Marisa Tomei in THINKFilm's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" - 2007
Mr. Lumet’s novelistic instincts — and his generosity with actors — are evident in how richly populated the small, involuted world of this movie feels. Secondary and tertiary characters — Gina; Bobby’s wife, Chris (Aleksa Palladino); his thuggish brother-in-law, Dex (Michael Shannon); that old man in the diamond district — do much more than carry the plot forward. Every scene has a sharp, gamy vitality, even when experienced, from a different angle and with a new significance, for the second or third time.
As pessimistic as it is — you have to squint hard to find the barest flicker of redemption in its denouement — “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is also curiously exhilarating. Some of this comes from the simple thrill of witnessing something, or rather everything, done well. Even the overwrought performances — Mr. Finney’s growls, Mr. Hawke’s twitches — have integrity and conviction. This is a melodrama, after all, and its lifeblood is in the manic acting, just as surely as it is in the plaintive horns of Carter Burwell’s score.
My grandfather, whose background was not so different from Mr. Lumet’s, was dismissive of movies that seemed overly dark or despairing. “There wasn’t a single decent human being in the whole movie,” he used to complain. He might not have found any in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” but he would also have recognized the humanism that saves this harsh tale from nihilism. The screen may be full of losers, liars, killers and thieves, but behind the camera is a mensch.
“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). The world is an evil place, kids.