Sunday, November 25, 2007

Betrayal, rot, fake moustaches: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

In recent years, we’ve become accustomed to celebrating our finest octogenarian filmmakers for their diversity (Alain Resnais), their grace and good humour (Robert Altman), or their steady commitment to a singular path (Ingmar Bergman, Chris Marker). But when we turn out gaze to the latest work from Hollywood veteran Sidney Lumet, 83 as of last June, what’s finally most impressive, maybe astounding, is its sheer visceral, even ruthless vitality.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead marks a full half-century of filmmaking for Lumet, who debuted with 12 Angry Men before going onto helm a dizzying smorgasbord of features that includes The Pawnbroker (1964), Dog Day Afternoon (75), Network (76), Prince of the City (81), Running on Empty (88) and Q&A (90). That’s a sort of quickie greatest hits list, but there’s been plenty of stinkers too, the latest chain of them having started with A Stranger Among Us (92).

Taken at a glance, the catalogue seems to indicate longevity and restlessness above all, but a closer look reveals an ongoing interest in –and unusually deft hand with– themes of doomed ambition, perverse betrayal, and the underlying rot in modern American life. Concerning the plight of Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke), two very different but mutually desperate brothers who collaborate on a robbery that goes horribly, grotesquely wrong, Before the Devil forges a new peak in Lumet’s oeuvre not only because it exudes the rigor of an artist half Lumet’s age, but because it is so very satisfying as a nasty, nasty, nasty little movie.

Working from Kelly Masterson’s script, which is narratively frazzled –there are more than a couple of plot holes, the consistent sleaziness feels rather overly schematic, and the finale arguably bites off more than it can chew– yet never less than riveting, Lumet has crafted a film that’s fascinatingly fractured on every level.
Before the Devil features a family plagued by primal intentions only slightly better than the bad timing that undoes it. Formally, morally, thematically, the film’s fissures proliferate: the story darts elliptically through the chronological plot by use of disruptive flash cuts, while the compositions often isolate a body part in some evocative way, as with the hand of Gina (Marisa Tomei, excellent) in the opening post-coital scenes. The final result is a film that keeps us watching by continually jarring us.

Andy watches the bodies of he and his wife as they make love in a mirror, his expression quizzical, as though he can’t quite believe they belong to them. The body of a small-time hold-up artist flies through a plate-glass door while a laughably disguised Hank, his fake moustache a poor stab at manly authority, looks on in despair from the front seat of the getaway car. Lumet and his superb cast imbue scene after scene with alienating, often raw physicality, and Lumet suitably screw with the whole process by returning to certain key moments and filming them from a reverse angle, causing us to stop and think we’ve seen this one before… or have we?

I mentioned the frazzled nature of Masterson’s script: its fairly effective at diverting us from its inconsistencies, though at times it only manages this by prompting the characters into near hysterics. Thankfully, a hysterical Hoffman is far from the worst thing you could come across in a movie. His Andy is a ticking bomb that gets incrementally louder as things unravel. Hoffman builds the tension through a balance of Mephistophelian disaffection and hot-breathed indignation. He’s picky about when he boils over. Hawke, meanwhile, makes a satisfying counterpart, the designated baby of the family, he’s miserably naïve, always convincingly one fateful step behind his brother in his attempts to fend off disaster. Granted, these guys don’t look much like brothers, but they get the sick spirit of it all just right.

And maybe they get a helping hand from Albert Finney, who plays the initially unassuming role of their father Charles, who’s never privy to their conniving but makes it his business to understand it and act swiftly, all the while somehow embodying traits of both Hawk and Hoffman in his compellingly heavy, overheated performance. A little closer in age to Lumet himself, Finney is ultimately revealed as the grimy core of
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, a patriarch that moves from supreme grief to blistering wrath. And like Lumet, Finney might go a little over the top in his efforts to get this nihilistic little tale from one end to the other, but the point is he gets us there, on waves of cinematic adrenaline.

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