|Cast:||Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, Rosemary Harris|
Sidney Lumet may never have been the most consistent of the great directors, but during his peak period from 1973-81 he delivered five of his six greatest movies: Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Equus, & Prince of the City. Subsequently he’s fallen into the pattern of making a series of mediocre to good movies before delivering a significant addition to his oeuvre dealing with some take on his favorite theme of corruption. These high points began with 1988’s Running On Empty, an intimate look at a loving tightly knit family that struggles to achieve a level of honesty, decency, and integrity they can never attain due to the parents being on the run from the FBI for a 1970 war protest gone awry. Their past that regularly almost catches up to them implicates their two boys, forcing them to regularly concoct new identities as they bounce from state to state and thus school to school. 1997’s Night Falls on Manhattan may not surpass Serpico or Prince of the City (though it’s better than Q & A) as tales of police corruption, but comes as close to obliterating the correlation between right and good, wrong and bad as one can without building the film around an amoral core.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is another one of Lumet’s returns to form, not quite as good as Running On Empty or Night Falls on Manhattan, but very interesting for finally focusing on the motivations that necessitate the corruption in the perpetrators minds. It’s probably closest to Dog Day Afternoon due to the theme of Al Pacino robbing the bank in attempt to please his male lover, the money bringing them closer together by allowing the lover to finally afford his sex change. There’s more of a necessity and urgency to attain money in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, as an IRS audit leaves head of payroll Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) about to be caught paying himself two extra paychecks (by continuing to draw money for terminated employees). His brother Hank (Ethan Hawke), who is already several months behind on child support, has just hit rock bottom, unable to produce $130 to pay for his daughters overnight school trip to see a performance of the Lion King a day or two after promising her she could go.
As in Dog Day Afternoon, the point is not so much the money itself, but rather the love the main characters decide it will bring. Above all else, divorced Hank cares about his daughter he now has minority custody of. However, despite busting his hump to try to give her the best, he’s lucky to be able to provide for her at all, and she resents him for that. Keeping her in private school seemingly eats up his entire paycheck, and she gives him no credit for what he’s better able to do, provide all the love and support in him (which at times can be embarrassing and suffocating). He’s just a gawking loser who overrates her successes and can’t pay for the things her friend’s parents can.
Andy’s relationship with Gina (Marisa Tomei) was great when they were in Rio, but similar to Michael Caine and Michelle Johnson it doesn’t quite work back in the States. Andy worked his way up from nothing to a six figure income, but all he’s been able to provide hasn’t kept them from growing distant and detached for reasons neither can quite put a finger on. It’s left him riddled with inadequacy and their marriage empty. If only he could afford to live in Rio fulltime, perhaps he could recapture the magic?
Gina has a once a week affair with Hank, who makes her feel sexy through his desire and gives her all the attention Andy doesn’t. Hank loves her, but her stated reason for not going with him is he can’t afford the dependants he has now. Money wouldn’t nab the ideal relationship with Gina for either, but they are unhappy with their current situation and she’s still much of what they desire (even if Andy has grown impotent), so they are tempted to do everything they can. Lumet’s characters want things to be right in the world (either justice or their own stability), but the imperfection of both the world and themselves tends to lead them down a path that actually has the reverse effect, making everything more complex and difficult for them.
The major difference from Dog Day Afternoon, or anything Lumet has done in the past, is the crime is a brief scene almost at the very beginning of the film. Lumet then utilizes a non-linear narrative, jumping between the handful of days before and after the bungled heist, though thankfully this isn’t one of those heartless Alain Resnais bastardizations where solving the puzzle is the be all and end all. Time stamps are utilized, not for the purpose of keeping the film from being confusing, but rather because the whole purpose is to flesh out the men through alternating points of view. Lumet sometimes shows the same scene at different times through different eyes, creating a layered effect that further elucidates the meaning as well as fleshing out new information by alternating the viewing angle and adding what one character did directly before or after. Cinematographer Ron Fortunato’s camera angles and movements are quite effective in putting us inside a character then utilizing the architecture to set this increasingly alienated being apart from everyone else.
A major change for Lumet is the bleakness of the endeavor. His police corruption films either have a good cop (Al Pacino's Serpico or Treat Williams' Daniel Ciello) or Assistant District Attorney (Timothy Hutton's Al Reilly or Andy Garcia's Sean Casey) at the center, while his previous crooks such as Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon or Vin Weasle in Find Me Guilty have their loveable side. Lumet is one of the few Hollywood directors known for his grittiness, but his street realism was never so relentlessly and unsparingly. Financial desperation creates a series of troubling situations where the stakes are raised with shocking swiftness, and the reactions exceed that which we imagine the characters capable of. Carter Burwell will probably have scored the best despairing American movie of the year, as he also did Joel & Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men.
Sidney Lumet has long been legendary for eliciting tremendous performances from his actors, whether it be a great actor at the top of their game such as Pacino in Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon or an undistinguished actor such as Treat Williams giving a performance in Prince of the City he’s never again approached. Philip Seymour Hoffman takes it to another level as calm, calculating, cunning, and controlling angler Andy. He’s been successful in business because he’s been able to internalize the negative, hiding beneath a friendly salesman veneer. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is really a dysfunctional family film with resentment and hatred simmering in Andy, particularly toward his father Charles (Albert Finney) for loving weak younger brother Hank more.
Lumet loves animated performances, and usually they’re also memorable, for instance Peter Finch as the crazy yet prophetic newsman in Network, but Ethan Hawke and Albert Finney, who can both be exceptional, could have benefited from toning things down a bit. Hoffman brings a great deal of nuance to his role as commanding schemer turned cold killer through sheer desperation. However, Hawke, who is the only character that could have been likeable, only comes off as pitiable due to overemphasizing his nervous ticks. Hawke is much better as a talker, memorable anytime he’s playing a philosophizing bullshitter - someone who has lived and is glad to convey his experiences - even if it’s a small part such as Richard Linklater’s underrated Fast Food Nation. Here he doesn’t have much meaningful dialogue, so he overdoes his grimaces and anxious postures. Hawke still has excellent moments, but Finney is overly mannered, and grows increasingly over the top in the final portion.
A few points hurt the film in my estimation. The primary fault is while I realize Andy wants to keep himself clean, providing the idea and setting up the fence are the kind of things he’d do well, nothing about him or Hank gives us any inkling as to why on earth he’d possibly think Hank could pull the caper off on his own. I suppose nothing could be easier than robbing a mom and pop store when you know the place like the back of your hand since it’s your own mom and pop’s, but Hank is the epitome of an inept, pathetic, chickenshit. He’s the kind of person that might hide from his own shadow, so just tossing him in right away with hastily thought out directions doesn’t seem something Andy would consider. Andy might be a drug addict who has boxed himself into a losing situation, but he’s the kind of guy who loses once in a while because he’s so cocky, thinking he’s so smart and everyone else isn’t. Hank, who he usually addresses as faggot, certainly heads his list of the not smart ones.
The heist goes as awry as everything involving Hank seems destined to, leaving their mother Nanette (Rosemary Harris) a vegetable on life support, but it doesn’t make sense for Charles to be hell bent on solving the crime given Nanette shot the robber dead. I’m not a fan of the Death Wish plot, but I understand the bad obsession that leads to the man stopping at nothing to avenge his loved ones. The problem here is there’s no information or evidence pointing to the fact that Bobby (Brian F. O’Byrne), who Hank hired to help him out, wasn’t simply a lone gunman.
The plot of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead might not always be the most believable, but more importantly few aspects are telegraphed. Rather than hint that Bobby’s girlfriend knows he had dealings with Hank, she’s just in the background of one scene where Hank goes to Bobby’s house. On the other hand, it’s suggested Hank probably leaves fingerprints at the homosexual drug dealer’s house, but he again assures Andy it’s all good, and this time that’s the end of it. Overall, it’s quite a good film, though I’d likely think more of it if any time was put into developing the female characters.
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