All in the Family
Sidney Lumet’s Devil is in the details.
Thursday, November 8, 2007
Family isn’t all sunshine and roses. We all have issues with our immediate kin, but happily, most of us don’t face the sort of family turmoil found in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, the new film from octogenarian Sidney Lumet, that explores what happens when a pair of brothers try to expand the family business into robbery, before spiraling into chaos and murder.
The film’s timeline jumps back and forth, and so does the opening scene, which finds Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) banging his wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei), from behind in workmanlike fashion. In their post-coital snuggle, however, we discover that their marriage is disintegrating and all they want to do is leave their troubled New York lives behind. The problem? Money: as in not enough of it. So Andy approaches his twitchy younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke), an incompetent drone with his own money problems, for a small-time robbery that could earn each of them enough to get ahead.
The plan is to knock off a suburban mom-and-pop jewelry store. It’s almost foolproof, because both bros know how the store operates, how the alarms work, and the location of all the choice pieces. And how do they know all this? Because it’s their own mom (Rosemary Harris) and pop (Albert Finney). Yes, Andy is proposing that they rob their parents’ store, which will be a victimless crime because of insurance, he says. Of course, things go awry before they even begin, as Hank loses his nerve and turns to his lowlife buddy Bobby (talented stage actor Brian F. O’Byrne) to do the deed. Robbery turns to bloodbath, and Charles, their father, goes on a personal mission to sort out exactly what went down. On top of that, Bobby’s girlfriend is looking for Hank, and Andy seems to have had his fingers in the company’s honey pot.
At its heart, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is about corruption, something Lumet has been making movies about for many, many years. This is the guy behind Serpico, Network, and The Verdict, after all. His work here is perfectly solid, if – somewhat like Hoffman’s attention to Tomei in the opening scene – workmanlike. The real strengths lie in the top-shelf cast and in Kelly Masterson’s script, which is terrifically intricate, allowing the characters their very human faults. Hank is thick, making newbie mistakes that just dig the holes he’s in only deeper, and Andy’s own dark secrets end up defining him and explaining why he would even consider masterminding a scam as poorly considered and morally bankrupt as the one he sets in motion. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a masterful actor, and he truly lets Andy’s house of cards wobble and fall. Still, the characters of Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead aren’t generally likeable, giving the entire picture a sense of authenticity and nastiness, but also making it challenging to have sympathy for them. The movie has gotten exceedingly good notices, but it’s hard not to feel as though some of them come from Lumet’s advancing years. This is a director who has made timeless films, but in this case, the sense of an elastic timeline isn’t as exciting as it was a decade ago. The movie is sharp, but when things go south, it’s not as if the characters, human and flawed as they are, don’t deserve what’s coming to them.
BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD ( * * * )
Directed by Sidney Lumet • Starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke and Marisa Tomei • R, 117 min • At the Osio Cinemas.