Saturday, October 27, 2007

New Film: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Warning: the following post contains spoilers.

Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, from a screenplay by first-time scribe Kelly Masterson, recently marked the the octogenarian director's first appearance at the New York Film Festival in 43 years, which is to say that the film's status as an event certainly preceded it upon this weekend's limited release. Whether this is Lumet's finest in that lengthy span - or more plausibly since his 1970s through early 1980s heyday - is not for this writer to say; to me, Lumet is as much the writer of an introductory film-making tome as he is the auteur of Dog Day Afternoon (1975, which I haven't seen it), Network (1976, seen it, actually) and The Verdict (1982, again haven't seen it). The point is that I'm no Lumet scholar, so if that precludes me from an insightful analysis of his latest - and I understand if you believe it does - than I would caution you from reading the rest. In any case, I will be uncharacteristically brief.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead opens with a startlingly graphic - and given that the couple is married, cinematically unconventional - sex act between Philip Seymour Hoffman's Andy and Marisa Tomei's Gina (who for the record looks absolutely extraordinary as she inches toward her mid-40s; Hoffman less so). This prologue, as will become clear, is the "thirty seconds of heaven," 'before the devil knows you're dead.' Back in the New York metropolitan area (the explanation for their personally-exceptional love-making is that it is because they are away, in Rio) Andy recruits his similarly money-troubled brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) to hold up a mom & pop jewelery store in Westchester. The twist, as many readers will undoubtedly already know, is that mom & pop are their Mom and Pop (the latter of which is played by Albert Finney).

But first, commensurate with the picture's non-sequential narration, the disastrous results of the robbery: Mom is shot along with the masked perp. With the latter being blown through the front door, Hank circles away from the scene, caught in an extended, static close-up registered by Lumet and cinematographer Ron Fortunato's HDCAM video camera. With this long-take, as with the other extended shots that punctuate the film (Lumet and Fortunato, for example, stay with Hoffman for an exceedingly long duration during a hotel room sequence) the purpose seems to be the registry the film's florid performances without intervening - or cheating - by editing. In this regard, Lumet's is the consummate actor's film with performances calibrated to impress, even as they remain equally capable of providing distraction, as they did for my regular viewing companion Ms. Broad in particular.

Of course, Lumet's film is no less noticeable in its non-chronological structure, which indeed plays with spectatorial feeling in a manner that more than justifies this narrative choice. For instance, in the aforementioned robbery scene, we are not immediately certain who the masked robber is, and when later we hear that typically another woman - not their mother - works the morning shift, we hope that maybe we confused the identity of the woman in this scene; perhaps the woman we saw is not their mother but only looks like her. (Similarly, early on we likewise hope that it is not Andy who was shot in the heist, not that he doesn't deserve the fate.) In short, Lumet expertly manipulates our sympathies, procuring our empathy - and in some sense, our hope for success - for characters who in no sense deserve anything of the sort.

This narrative-embodied relativism is matched by idea the world is comprised of those who make money through duplicity and those who are impacted it - not that the former always get away with their crimes. Finney in particular is vicitimized here, with his wife being killed in a heist orchestrated by his two sons. With the revelation of this detail - via an underworld jeweler who demonstrates his contempt for the (mostly) virtuous patriarch - Finney accepts the role of fate's agent, enacting an Oedipal drama that highlights the film's ultimate core: in the relationship of father to son. Then again, by shifting emphases in the film's denouement, Lumet does leave slack other threads that perhaps deserve greater attention, though he remains true to his manipulations of spectatorial desire, allowing in a sense the most favorable characters to at least, in the space of the plot, get away with it. The punishment does land on the most deserving.

1 comment:

Neil said...

I felt this was a great analysis of the movie, and would have loved to hear more, in fact, about the "ultimate core" as you put it. I found this site as I wanted to understand more about that relationship, and find a good dissection of the elder son's motives throughout the film.