By Steven Boone
Screened at the 45th New York Film Festival.
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They get mean when they get old, these great directors. Hitchcock made the merciless, despairing Frenzy at 73. Woody Allen wrote and directed the godless-universe tragedy Match Point at 70. And now 83-year-old Sidney Lumet damns us all with Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.
But just like Frenzy and Match Point, Lumet's crime saga pulsates with a sense of its creator's pure joy of filmmaking. "Unimaginably pleasurable to make," Orson Welles once told Peter Bogdanovich of the former's ecstatically grim Touch of Evil. Well, even as the bodies slump over bleeding in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, you can almost hear Lumet giggling.
Let's take a quixotic lunge at describing this flick without giving up crucial spoilers that the oncoming months of buzz, festival coverage, TV spots and trailers surely will: Hard up for cash, coke-sniffing executive Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his blue collar younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) plot a jewelry store heist that, yep, goes all wrong. The plan was to use no weapons, just a toy gun, but somehow a loved one, the last person in the world either of them would want to hurt, ends up critically wounded and brain dead. Still, they escape the law and suspicion—until their father Charles (Albert Finney) starts investigating the crime on his own. It was his jewelry store, after all. Buckets of blood, sweat and tears ensue.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is New Jersey playwright Kelly Masterson's first original screenplay; he seems to have studied the mathematical construction and high melodrama of the great noirs before jotting down a word. Not bad. This film is satisfying in a thousand old-fashioned ways and ludicrous in others that matter more to plot/continuity accountants than to folks who like their crime stories operatic. If you're the type who couldn't get past a pivotal scene in De Palma's Scarface because, "come on, nobody can sniff that much cocaine and then shoot straight," then you'll probably have trouble with this flick. It all hinges on whether you believe these suburban Joes are desperate enough to pull even a small-time heist.
Lumet is more concerned with 1) orchestrating scenes with the Swiss timing and piercing compositions we remember from his best films (Serpico; The Verdict); 2) honoring and lavishing the dysfunctional family dramatic thread that gives the film both its momentum and its credibility problems; 3) giving some gifted actors a whole lot of red meat to chomp on. Sorry to drop yet another name, but Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things was this kind of beast: Frears's love for his motley assortment of actors and of choice, flavorful moments powered through a kind of unbelievable story about immigrants selling their organs. (Look here, ain't no immigrant who looks like Audrey Tautou desperate enough to sell any organs that ain't on the outside.) Before the Devil Knows You're Dead runs with the notion that the brothers are so down and out and insecure because of their stone-hard father's emotional abuse. (Thank God Daddy-obsessed Spielberg didn't snatch up this script.) Even though the robbery is intended as a "victimless crime" in which Pop would be reimbursed by insurance, it's clear that their scheme is also a latent act of rebellion. This is the kind of subtext actors love to play with, and Lumet doesn't stand in their way.
Hoffman portrays the kind of corporate go-getter who frets over his net worth the way some men check penis length—and for the same reasons: His luscious wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) has expensive tastes. Tomei plays a calculating wifey with a heart full of the same stuff she's digging. She really cares about Andy, despite carrying a secret that essentially makes a fool out of him and leads to a fatal confrontation. As the brothers' mom, Rosemary Harris is roughly the same bland old WASP lady she plays as Spiderman's Aunt May. Here she gets to show some physical skill in the first of the film's three crackling action-suspense scenes. Albert Finney initially plays Dad a bit frail and long past his days of being the family tyrant, until he gets consumed with solving the crime. Lumet gives him and Hoffman what could have been their "could have been a contender" moment of confession and tearful lament, but the scene is overwritten and dramatically unnecessary. A better "contender" duet happens between Hoffman and Hawke. Hanging their heads in shame at what they've done, they struggle to figure out their next move, only to dredge up more and more shameful family business. Though Hoffman's character is the cokehead, Hawke plays Hank like a hardcore dope fiend throughout. He'd be the film's standout performer if it weren't for Michael Shannon's brief scenes as a ball-busting extortionist. Shannon has a face and presence Lumet surely wishes he'd had had on tap for character roles in Dog Day Afternoon and Prince of the City.
There's not much new here, aside from Lumet's enthusiasm and simple craft. In the age of Transformers, that's enough for me.
Steven Boone is a New York-based critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl is Heavy and the publisher of the pop culture blog Big Media Vandalism.