Dubby’s dvdiscussion: Death and the devil
Sidney Lumet one of America’s truly great directors who gave us Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, 12 Angry Men, Network and The Verdict and who directed 17 different actors into winning Oscars without winning out himself. At 83 in Before The Devil Knows You Are Dead he uses new techniques like jump backs and jump forwards from differing points of view to go into the details of a particularly vicious crime committed within a family.
Says critic Kit Bowen, “Sometimes the simplest of crimes are the ones that go the most awry — a fact Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) find out the hard way. Andy is an overextended payroll exec who has been embezzling from his company, while Hank is a flighty ne’er-do-well who can’t pay child support. When Andy hatches a larcenous scheme to rob their own parents’ jewellery shop. Easy target? “How can we do that?” Hank asks his cold-hearted brother, but Andy assures Hank it’s a piece of cake and that no one will get hurt. Famous last words. Hank’s fears are realised when the job goes horribly wrong and tragedy reaches unprecedented heights.
A top-notch cast like this only makes things better. Hoffman, in particular, gives yet another tour-de-force performance as the troubled Andy, a man wounded by his father’s hard-headedness and lack of affection throughout the years. Hoffman alternates between calculating coldness and heart-wrenching desperation — all while keeping his outwardly appearance impeccable. Hawke’s Hank, on the other hand, is just a mess through and through, a “puppy dog,” as so described by Andy, who wears his heart on his sleeve and is his father’s favourite.
Although Hawke whines and grates his way through the performance, that is what the part requires, and he is quite effective at it. Finney as the brothers’ old man is also conflicted, devastated by the tragedy yet determined to get to the bottom of it — and when he realises it’s his sons, Finney plays the moment perfectly.
Also good is Marisa Tomei as Andy’s stressed wife; she plays her like a caged bird looking for a way out. When things keep getting worse, you cringe in anticipation of each character’s next move.”
Concludes critic Glenn Kenny, “Lumet, who substantively reworked the script by first-timer Kelly Masterson (among other things, he made Hank and Andy brothers), tells the story in steady switches between flash-forward and flashback, rewinding bits of the chronology and showing events from one particular character’s point of view. It’s a risky strategy and one Lumet hasn’t tried before, but he pulls it off beautifully. Always an actors’ director, Lumet pulls extraordinary performances from his cast. Hoffman’s Andy is smarmy and sleazy but you can see the fat awkward kid inside him. As always, the actor shows his unerring ability to find and flesh out his character’s most mortifyingly human lows; he’s a poet of the humiliated. Finney summons up some mighty nasty emotions himself, throwing us off guard after his initially gruffly avuncular portrayal of the patriarch. Hawke is deft and sympathetic in clueless/defensive mode, while Tomei — whose character is literally the most exposed, as she’s largely half-nude throughout — makes Gina’s willful, messed-up frustration palpable.
The picture brims with the sort of special New York detail Lumet’s a past master at, particularly in the creepy scenes in which Hoffman’s character lounges at the ultramodern apartment of his high-end drug dealer. The action is violent and messy. This is a movie for grownups, for sure, but it has a mulish kick that most such pictures consider themselves to tasteful to aspire to.”