Friday, April 22, 2016
Director: Sidney Lumet
Writer: Kelly Masterson
Photography: Ron Fortunato
Music: Carter Burwell
Editor: Tom Swartwout
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, Rosemary Harris, Michael Shannon, Bryan F. O'Byrne, Amy Ryan, Aleksa Palladino, Leonardo Cimino, Blaine Horton
Director Sidney Lumet's last picture came more than 50 years after his first, and it's a decent clinic in all the things he was good at. We learn by way of DVD extras, for example, that Lumet was at pains to describe Before the Devil Knows You're Dead as a melodrama rather than a thriller. With the caper crime at the center of it I've always been inclined to think of it more as a thriller, but he makes a good argument. One change he made to the original screenplay was to make Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) brothers rather than friends. It's simple, but amps up the tension between them, notably over the ongoing affair Hank is having with Andy's wife Gina (Marisa Tomei)—amps it up by approximately an infinite degree. Where it might have been just sad and pathetic, it now has more potential for convulsive epic tragedy.
In fact, this is a tremendously agonizing story, maybe even unbelievable in synopsis, but pulled off by the skill of Lumet and his cast and crew. I was reminded a little of Dancer in the Dark, which I was talking about a few weeks ago as hurtling vertiginously into darkness. The same arc is at play here, but whereas Dancer director Lars von Trier insists on distancing himself from the emotional wallop, Lumet rushes in fully embracing exactly that, shading everything he can think of to make it as fraught as possible. On the DVD commentary track, Hoffman points out a close-up of a finger squeezing a trigger and says that's when he knew he was working on a melodrama.
Another aspect of Lumet's creative spirit is his enthusiastic adoption of digital technology. He was something of a pioneer that way, making an argument about matching types of electromagnetic and chemical energies. He's more convincing on the practical nature of less and lighter equipment required to haul around, set up, and maintain. The camera does feel set free somewhat, as with shots from above that ride along behind cars. Even to the smallest details Lumet appears to be in remarkable control of the material.
As much as anything, the strengths of Lumet's pictures are in his cast and he knows it, rehearsing them like plays, providing sets that enable the players to move, and encouraging their instincts. Though the commentary track with Lumet, Hawke, and Hoffman—sad to think only one of them is alive now—can veer dangerously close to mutual admiration society (not surprising, given the circumstances of making these things), they are more often solid and insightful on the craft of performance. Lumet compliments Hoffman on his ability to take his time with a shot. He points out many of the subtly enriching improvisatory elements he captured and retained. They all sit quietly for some of the strongest scenes, such as Andy's breakdown in the car with Gina. Whenever Gina's breasts or even cleavage are visible they all exclaim over the beauty of Marisa Tomei.
Well, nobody ever said commentary tracks were perfect. Even the barest summation of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead gives some feel for the Oedipal depths it plumbs. Andy manipulates Hank into going along with a scheme to rob their parents' jewelry store, which is in a suburban shopping mall (Westchester, to be specific—another great aspect of this movie is its feel for New York locations). Andy argues that it's a victimless crime because their parents are insured and won't lose any money. Nobody loses, he says. But it's an absolutely reckless plan by any view. Hank knows better, but goes along with it because he is weak—because Andy puts $2,000 cash money in Hank's hands as "an advance."
The story takes on a coiling non-sequential structure, which swirls around the crime itself. It's the first scene after the titles (the opening scene before the titles is equally jarring, in another register entirely) so practically from the start we are confronted with the mess that was made of the robbery. A stylized cut is used to signal shifts in time, accompanied by straightforward titles such as "Hank: 3 Days Before the Robbery." Between this and The Savages, Hoffman was having a banner year for toxic family drama.
Another element to Lumet movies that's as true for 12 Angry Men as it is for Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a heavy reliance on New York theater talent. That pays off in innumerable ways. Michael Shannon, then still a relative unknown, makes the most out of a small part, and is mesmerizing. Ditto Amy Ryan, Rosemary Harris, Bryan F. O'Byrne, Aleksa Palladino. Blaine Horton showed up with just the right exotic haircut and ability to say "bummer" with disdain, and the drug dealer role was nailed down perfectly.
Speaking of "bummer," you might be tempted to argue that this movie is too much of one. It's really dismal, it's true. It goes to bad places and there are bad people. Yet each has a convincing way into becoming likable too, however tortuous. For his part, on all the DVD extras, Lumet appears sanguine about any sense of it going way over the top. He loves all the little ways he finds to ratchet the tension, to make the story even more purple and bruised. "If they're all human, it'll work," he says. And it seems to be exactly right: every character in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is human, and it works.