Before the Devil Knows You're Dead / John Williams
Film Reviews | October 29, 2007 | Comments ()
Director Sidney Lumet has been making movies for an awfully long time. He was working behind the camera for television as early as 1948, and he was responsible for some of the most memorable movies of the 1970s, including Dog Day Afternoon and Network. He’s been working steadily through his later years, but since The Verdict in 1982, that work has been largely uninspired. Now, at 83, he’s proven it’s never too late for a comeback.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a hard-boiled, full-throttle New York joyride that revels in seamy characters, bad intentions, and sweaty palms. Think your family is dysfunctional? Well, let’s see. Are you having sex with your brother’s wife on a weekly basis? Are you and that same brother botching an armed robbery … of your own parents’ jewelry store? No? Then get in line, pal.
Meet the Hansons. Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) are brothers who have much less in common than just their looks. Andy is an accountant pulling down six figures but still struggling to make ends meet due to profligacy, including a pricey drug habit and vacations to South America with his wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei). In order to satisfy his needs, Andy is a bumbling schemer in the classical American mode, someone who David Mamet could have seamlessly added to the desperate cast of Glengarry Glen Ross. Andy’s cooking the books at work, but he’s hungry to bag bigger game. He’s bold enough to propose the robbery, figuring the insurance will take care of his parents and make it a victimless crime, but he’s not quite nervy enough to accompany Hank on the errand.
Hank — nervous, twitchy, and only willing to go through with the plan because he’s behind on child-support payments — enlists a bar buddy, Bobby (Brian F. O’Byrne) to help him. Aside from an abrupt, graphic opening sex scene between Andy and Gina (and not that it needs saying, but seeing both Hoffman and Tomei naked on a big screen creates an almost unsolvable visual dilemma), the robbery is the first thing we witness. It goes badly. The kind of badly involving a lot of blood.
After Hank frantically flees the scene, the movie takes the form of a series of extended flashbacks that lead up to, and past, the crime. Lumet may be getting on, but he handles the constantly fracturing timeframe more lucidly than the whippersnappers like Tarantino who have made the technique so ubiquitous.
Lumet’s strengths are further flattered by his cast. Hoffman is as good as ever. Great acting is in the details, and just the way Andy sighs as he bends toward a line of cocaine in his office is enough to make the performance award-worthy. Tomei is terrific and — there’s no way to avoid mentioning this — seductive on a nuclear level. It’s not just that Gina is frequently unclothed; Tomei portrays her as a creature who’s turned on by every passing air molecule, managing to writhe even while looking out a kitchen window at a wake.
As Hank, Hawke plays one of the few characters remotely deserving of sympathy, and I suppose in a different movie he would serve as some kind of moral anchor for the proceedings. But while this tale has shades of ancient tragedy, the script is seedy enough to keep earnestness at bay, and funny enough that pulpy entertainment always takes clear precedence over moral lessons. The movie is imbued with a certain kind of sadness — most poetically achieved when Andy visits a transvestite drug dealer in Trump Tower and stares down on midtown on a glum, gray day — but it also actively avoids being taken too seriously. Even the distinguished Albert Finney, who plays the Hanson patriarch, Charles, moves from grief-stricken victim to over-the-top vengeful monomaniac.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is the kind of entertainment that Hollywood should produce more often — human-scaled but fantastical, slick but not nihilistic. If it takes a veteran like Lumet to do it, may he live to 100.
John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.