Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sidney Lumet, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" (2007).

Did you ever step back to consider why the idea of seeing a certain movie appeals to you while the thought of another leaves you cold? I would speculate that the most obvious determinative factor is the cast. Most people with an average interest in film see the name of an actor on the marquee, or nowadays more often in the promotional material, and decide whether or not to go to the theater, rent the flick on DVD, or wait for it on cable. Once folks develop a deeper interest in film they start paying attention to the directors. They find out who "made" the film and then look for other stuff by the same filmmaker. I tend to fall into that last category. Usually I gravitate to those directors with the most consistent and articulated aesthetic.

I can't think of many times that I've chosen to see something based upon the title. But Before the Devil Knows Your Dead caught my attention as soon as I heard of it. Likewise the presence of Phillip Seymour Hoffman intrigued me, as I've recognized his talent in the past (primarily in the films of P.T. Anderson). Those clues were sufficient for me to want to see it. As if to reinforce my interest, the Onion A/V gave it an intriguing review. There is no single source that I trust like that website. So I didn't even get to the point of noticing who directed BDKYD. Had I realized that the great filmmaker Sidney Lumet made the film, it would have simply made me even more anxious to track it down.

Lumet has made some absolute classics- 12 Angry Men (1957), The Pawnbroker (1964), The Anderson Tapes (1971), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), and The Verdict (1982). Yet somehow he's often overlooked when it comes time to discuss the best filmmakers of the second half of the 20th Century. Perhaps that's because he took so many chances and was so prolific (he made more than 50 films). He actually cut his teeth directing teleplays (over 200 of them in the nascent period of the medium), and through them developed a distinctive intimacy and social realism that came to characterize much of his film work. Remarkably he is still creating work in his 80's.

Before the Devil Knows Your Dead
is a story in the tradition of neo-noir. Along with Hoffman it stars Lumet-veteran Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, and Ethan Hawke. It concerns Andy and Hank (Hoffman and Hawke), two brothers who decide to make an end run around their financial troubles by ripping off their parents' suburban jewelry store. Predictably things go horribly wrong. When the plan falls apart, it is up to Andy (who instigated and plotted the entire affair) to clean up the mess. This is going to require a lot of improvisation and a fair amount of violence. There are deep complications that poison the relationships within the entire family, and the resultant emotions are as difficult to overcome as the situational difficulties.

Lumet has crafted a relentlessly bleak film. It is notable that there isn't a single likable character within the entire film. Hoffman is spectacular as a slimy real estate accountant who is steadily deteriorating, and Hawke plays against type as an exceptionally weaselly prat. As always Finney is a singular presence as their tormented father. The cast alone justifies a viewing of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. The direction is gritty and professional, even if the dialog and plot sometimes veer toward melodrama. The disjointed narrative serves to keep the viewer engaged. While no one is likely to place this film among Lumet's classic canon, it manages to capture the nihilistic dread of our modern age. It is impressively relevant for a late career work.

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