The Reeler


October 25, 2007

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Lumet's steady, memorable crime drama embodies existential despair

Crime in a Sidney Lumet film is like the class snobbery of old school Woody Allen: Not fun to watch, but specialized to the point of being educational. In the way that Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan reveal the self-obsessive qualities caused by affluence, Lumet’s unremitting investigations into the nature of corruption focus on the misguided rationales that breed immorality. The surge of critical praise for his newest entry in this career-length exploration, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, comes across as appreciation for a devout moralist whose beat hasn’t changed after all these years.

Devil isn’t the 83-year-old director’s greatest work, but it’s a steady, memorable drama that never strays from its grimy atmosphere. That thematic dedication keeps the film consistent with the rest of Lumet’s filmography; try as he might to bury his signature in the individual context of his projects, he’s always very much the star of the show. Devil focuses on two wrong-headed siblings (magnificently played by Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman) whose respective monetary woes lead them to the unlikely scheme of robbing their parents’ jewelry store. Blinded by the idea of taking a short cut to wealth, the would-be crooks’ plan immediately goes wrong and keeps spiraling downward. At once believable and confounding, it bears the Lumet imprint of plain, unpretentious tragedy: Devil exists in the same unhappy universe of Lumet’s cop narratives Serpico and Prince of the City, where honesty is a vulgarity and happy endings are a myth.

The only element of the film that doesn’t work is Lumet’s most unexplored terrain: experiments with tension. The plot unfolds within an awkward arrangement of flashbacks that repeatedly move between events before and after the robbery, which seems unnecessary for such a straightforward, uncomplicated yarn. We’re already aware that the brothers’ earnest old man (Albert Finney) dropped their mother (Rosemary Harris) off at the shop to sub for the usual employee shortly before the robbery, leading to her accidental injury when the act takes place, but Lumet still slows down the pace by showing us those events after we’ve already seen the robbery (twice). The director has a talent for staging powerful moments, but he’s at his best when he lets them unfold without temporal interference. In The Pawnbroker, the only other Lumet film to utilize flashbacks, the device serves to add psychological depth to the story’s emotionally vacant Holocaust survivor. But in Devil, the emotion is bound to the details of the events, and there’s no justification for screwing around with them.

Structural flaws aside, the movie contains a flurry of richly directed scenes. Its stunning opener, a graphic sex scene both eerily unpleasant and naughtily exciting, establishes a tone where nothing is sacred, or secret. The robbery scene feels organic, almost like theater, in its execution of intimate suspense mechanisms. In the spirit of the Coen brothers’ Fargo, mundanity anticipates conflict: when things start off going according to plan, it’s time to get worried.

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If Devil were the debut of some emerging talent, it would probably be recognized as an impressive calling card, but take away the trail of Lumet’s preceding crime dramas and the film wouldn’t carry the same heft. The screenplay, by first-timer Kelly Masterson (improperly identified by Lumet as a woman at a recent press conference, proving that he truly made this movie under a separate cover) bears some sloppy details: The Hawke character’s poverty is repeatedly emphasized in obvious ways (his daughter asks for theater tickets as his face falls), and his affair with his brother’s frequently undressed wife (Marisa Tomei) is almost too neat of a complication.

Nevertheless, Hawke and Hoffman are such intense, believable actors that their performances smooth over the rough spots. Lumet’s imagined family dynamic suits the performers’ ability to generate credible chemistry, especially once Finney begins investigating his sons’ nasty plan and engages in a fiery-yet-subtle act of vengeance. It’s his character -- that of the hardened elder of the family -- which navigates the film’s core principles. Symbolically and literally, he strikes back at the pathetic indolence of his offspring, and so does the script: “I want more,” moans Hawke. “So does Oliver Twist,” he’s told.

Crime doesn’t pay in Sidney Lumet movies, except when criminals are subjected to it. In this case, the final fate of the characters completes the story’s pervasive gloom. The movie suggests a world utterly uneasy with itself. Rather than commenting on existential despair, Devil embodies it.

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