Saturday, June 28, 2008

#4: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Directed by Sidney Lumet
Written by Kelly Masterson
Released September 26, 2007

When you think about yourself at 80 years old, what do you imagine yourself doing? If you're answer is any more elaborate than "drooling, shitting my pants and complaining about 'Kids these days,'", you're fooling yourself. Honestly, most of us here aren't even going to see the octogenarian milestone before we become worm food.

Sidney Lumet was 83 years old when he made Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, a tense and virtually Shakespearean tragedy about two brothers and a jewel heist gone horribly wrong. The fact that Lumet has directed one of his finer movies so late into his twilight years defies the generally accepted notion that artists do their best work in their youth.

Of course, Lumet had a number of directorial missteps throughout his career, from the unintentionally comic Vin Diesel production Find Me Guilty (created one year before Devil) to the fairly awful re-make of Gloria with Sharon Stone in the title role... or A Stranger Among Us... or The Wiz...

Okay. So it seems when you're doing your thing for 60 years, you're going to have some crap mixed in with your cream. Most directors would kill to have made movies like 12 Angry Men, Fail Safe, Network, Prince of the City, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon.

If Before the Devil Knows You're Dead isn't a return to form (there are plenty of plot holes and a few directorial choices that I found questionable), it is at the very least a resurgence of Lumet's skillset, and possibly one of the better filmed/looking movies of his career.

Devil opens with as striking a visual cacophony as you're bound to see in this life: the exquisitely beautiful and well-aged Marisa Tomei getting drilled by a sweaty, lumpy Philip Seymour Hoffman. You may feel the need to check the back of the DVD box to see if this movie is categorized as Science Fiction.

Hoffman and Tomei engage in some post-coital nostalgia about a vacation they'd spent together. If you'll pardon the euphemism, it's here that the seed for Hoffman's eventual heist is planted. Because of the choppy, anti-chronological way Lumet presents the story, it takes a while to piece together his motivation.

Soon, we meet Hank (a surprisingly good Ethan Hawke), fuck-up younger brother to Hoffman's seemingly successful Andy. It doesn't take long to figure out why he decides to follow his brother's plan to rob a certain suburban jewelry store.

I'm not giving anything away by saying the heist goes awry. You can't possibly imagine, however, how awry the robbery -- and its aftermath -- go. As the tension and the body count mount, the movie becomes more and more bleak until you're begging for the sweet release of an ending. As sick as it sounds, I mean that in a good way.

I really enjoyed Devil (at least as much as one can enjoy such a dark experience with few, if any, likeable characters), but I found a few notes out of sync. Tomei holds her own for of the movie, but her acting eventually crumbles under the weight of the material as the movie progresses. There is a particular scene with a suitcase that I'll use as my Exhibit A. Let me know what you think in the comments section.

Things get a bit melodramatic (though never unbelievable), so if you aren't invested in the film by the halfway point, I'd recommend shutting it off. A few of the choices made by side characters near the finale are questionable. Unfortunately, I can't go into any more questions or complaints without ruining key plot points.

I was also disappointed that Albert Finney was a bit underused as the father of the two brothers. The one-or-two-note performance isn't really Finney's fault since we don't get to see his character in any real context prior to the robbery. Perhaps his anger and grief would be a bit more resonant if we more of him before the crime?

The DVD commentary, provided by Hoffman, Hawke and Lumet, wavers between informative, engaging and laughably pretentious, especially as Hoffman and Hawke get esoteric on the subject of acting. I laughed out loud when Hawke asserted that when Tomei acts, "The air just moves through her." I love Philip Seymour Hoffman and could only hope he was thinking, "What the fuck is this guy talking about?" Sadly, he plays right along.

As a side note and possible selling point, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Marisa Tomei spends almost the entire movie naked. You know, if you're into that sort of thing...

For more on Before the Devil Knows You're Dead:
- More movie information at the Internet Movie Database
- Uh. A French site for the movie?
- Buy Before the Devil Knows You're Dead at Amazon

(P.S.: Anyone got a link to a more indie video store/company? is doing just fine, financially. I'd love to help some other places out. Maybe Facets in Chicago?

Official movie trailer:
I have to add a caveat here: I watched this without seeing a preview or having much prior knowledge at all. This preview gives away massive chunks of plot points that I think you might enjoy not knowing going into the film. Clicker beware, is all I'm trying to say.

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