Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
|Philip Seymour Hoffman||Andy|
|Directed by||Sidney Lumet|
In a pub in Ireland, amidst the smoke and the clinking glasses, you might hear this toast: "May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you're dead."
That’s the sentiment that provides the title for the remarkable new film from the octogenarian master Sidney Lumet. It’s a nice thought, but one gets the feeling the devil will be on the lookout for the venal, hapless shnooks at the center of this yarn, and nab them on the rise. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is the story of a foolproof victimless crime gone horribly wrong, with fools, victims, and criminals strewn across a tawdry landscape. In genre terms, think of A Simple Plan and you’ll be sniffing around the right neighborhood.
It’s a tale of two brothers. One is Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a real estate executive who is married to the shapely but discontented Gina (Marisa Tomei), is hooked on drugs, and lives beyond his means. The other is the real loser. He’s Hank (Ethan Hawke), a likeable but pathetic ne’er-do-well whose shrewish ex-wife would like to see him in jail. He’s three months behind on his child support, and can’t seem to scrape two nickels together for anything but a drink in a bar.
They both need money in the worst way. And that, of course, is how they go about getting it. Andy, the thinker, comes up with a plan. There’s a mom-and-pop jewelry store in a suburban shopping center where easy money is to be had. The heist will be timed for the store’s opening on a Saturday morning, when no customers will be around, and the place will be staffed by an employee with no deep stake in protecting it. Get in quick, grab the cash and the inventory, and get out. The merchandise is all insured, so nobody gets hurt. It’s a sure thing, and the brothers will clear $60 grand each.
The job is so simple Andy manipulates the hapless Hank into executing it. Hank enlists the aid of a thuggish friend. And then things go bad.
They go bad, and they go worse. The go skin-crawlingly, cold-sweatingly, heart-stoppingly, stomach-churningly, most awfully wrong. It’s the kind of trouble so atmospherically dense that you wonder how the characters can breathe, much less put one foot in front of the other.
More than anything else this is a movie about consequences. It’s about the consequences of our actions and our inactions, the consequences of our loves and our vices, the consequences of selfishness and treachery, of neglect, of raising kids wrong, of cheating, of hanging out with low company. Everything we do has consequences, and the consequences have consequences. It’s a twisted skein of relationships all built on a scurvy chain reaction of cause and effect.
Lumet has always been a director who has gotten the most out of his actors. Starting with Henry Fonda’s Best Actor in Lumet’s first film. 12 Angry Men (1957), you’d need more fingers and toes than can be found on the average body to count the actors and actresses who have won or been nominated for Oscars on his watch. (The director himself has only an honorary Oscar to show for his half-century directing such classics as The Pawnbroker, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, and Network). With the performances in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Lumet may well add Hoffman and Hawke to his list of honored performers. Lumet gave the actors the script and let each choose which brother he wanted to play. (In Kelly Masterson’s clever debut screenplay, the two weren’t originally brothers, but Lumet did some important reshaping.)
In Andy, the slick, conniving older brother, Hoffman discovers a wealth of self-satisfaction, self-hatred, and self-doubt. He’s a subtle actor who never shows everything all at once -- except perhaps in the opening scene of the movie, where he’s seen in his ample full monty in extended copulation with Tomei, a prospect that may give pause to viewers with delicate sensibilities. (Tomei is naked for a significant percentage of her screen time, and in her mid-40s she looks great.)
Hawke plays the younger brother with a slack grin and a stray dog’s eagerness to please. There is something in Hank that has never quite rounded into adulthood. The parents, played by Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney, seem to have had a close relationship that did not completely include their sons. Andy was unloved and expected to stand on his own, Hank was babied, and both grew into hollow, incomplete men. There is a marvelous back yard confrontation between the leather-faced Finney and the porcine Hoffman that strips bare the armature of this family’s dysfunction.
The action is structured in chapters, staging, prefiguring, and revisiting the key event of the botched robbery, moving back and forth in time and perspective. There’s a nasty, desperate tawdriness to Lumet’s exploration of the underbelly of human nature, but it’s a fierce melodrama that hits satisfyingly hard. As the Shadow used to say, the weed of crime bears bitter fruit, and Lumet has made a delicious pie out of it.
© Text 2007 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be