Thursday, April 17, 2008

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead

Director: Sidney Lumet
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, Rosemary Harris, Michael Shannon, Bryan F. O'Byrne, Amy Ryan

Running Time: 116 min.

Rating: R

**1/2 (out of ****)

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead is essentially a film about two losers who make a series of stupid decisions that wreck their lives. When it was over I was sure I enjoyed it, but the more I thought about it I realized, aside from some sure-footed direction from a filmmaking legend and two outstanding performances, there wasn't really anything particularly great about it or worth recommending. The director of the film is Sidney Lumet, who's stated in interviews that he's gotten sick of reporters and critics mentioning how old he is. I don't blame him since I agree the age of a filmmaker should have no bearing on anything. So, let's just say he's up there in years. Watching the film I never would have guessed the age of the director, but more disappointingly, I also wouldn't have guessed it was directed by the same man who made Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon and Network.

It's not fair to compare this to those classics and while this is definitely one of his lesser efforts, it is still better than many directors' best. But his work is undermined here by a silly script that bombards us with an annoying narrative device that prevents us from caring about any of the characters. This is all in spite of an Award-worthy performance from one of our greatest actors and book ending the film with a shocking opening and closing scene. But all they are is shocking and that's the problem. I actually found myself laughing a lot during this film, which couldn't have been Lumet's intent.

Andy Hanson (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and his younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) are losers at life. Andy is stuck in a pressure-filled job he hates while struggling with drug addiction. He dreams of coming into a windfall of cash so he and his beautiful wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) can leave the country. They have intimacy issues but you'd never know it from the opening scene, which features them having wild sex. I guess after you've won an Oscar one of the perks is getting to do a scene like this, but something tells me it was probably more embarrassing and nerve-racking for the actors than exciting. Gina is having a secret affair with Hank, whose life is equally in shambles. He can't afford the child support payments to his ex-wife (played by Amy Ryan) and the two are at each other's throats constantly.

Andy comes up with a solution to both their problems with a plan to rob a mom and pop jewelry store. This mom and pop in question just so happens to actually be mom and pop (Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney). Having worked there in the past they both know the layout and since their folks are fully insured they won't lose anything. A disguised Hank will case the joint on a Saturday morning although he's completely unaware their mother is covering that shift for an absentee associate. The problem with this master plan is that Hank isn't the brightest bulb in the box, nor does he trust himself to go through with this. He hires a hot-headed out-of-town thug (played by Bryan F. O' Byrne) to help him out and everything goes all wrong. It's worth noting that Rosemary Harris' performance in the robbery scene is truly awful, turning what should be an edge-of your-seat sequence into a screwball comedy with her cartoonish facial expressions. The second half of the picture deals with the serious fallout from this tragedy and Finney's character's suspicions into what happened. The more Andy and Hank try to cover their tracks after the robbery the deeper a hole they dig themselves into.

It's hard to determine which half of this film works best. On one hand, the first hour is at times a very interesting character study highlighted by a terrific Hoffman performance as this pathetic and desperate man. But this section of the film is mired by something very annoying. Kelly Masterson's script constantly zigs and zags, flashing forward and flashing back to let us know what happened "1 Day Before The Robbery," "2 Days Before The Robbery," "2 Weeks After The Robbery," "7 Days After The Fifth Leap Year And Approximately 2 Minutes and 15 Seconds Before The Robbery." It's so irritating. Not so much because of the confusion it creates, but because it's pointless. There's no reason for it. When used sparingly this device can be successful and actually add to the story (see Michael Clayton), but here it's just a distraction and distances us from the characters. We're too concerned trying to figure out what day and week we're on to actually care about what they're doing. It was clearly done in an attempt to make the film feel hip and new rather than enhance the material.

The second half of the film crackles with more intensity and belongs to Hawke, whose Hank could write a book on how to look as suspicious as possible after you've committed a crime. But it's just how anyone would act and a scene he has at a car rental office as just about as tension-filled as you can get. Again though, Masterson's script gives in to temptation and takes things too far. Everything escalates to ridiculous levels, which wouldn't be a problem so long as the story didn't take place in a fantasy world where cops don't exist. That's especially surprising considering this is a Lumet film. The script shifts from Andy and Hank covering their tracks so well that no cops could find them out, to their actions (especially Andy's) becoming so complicated and bizarre you wonder how any cop could even put the pieces together without their head exploding. Maybe that's why Masterson chose to write the law out entirely. It was just too much to deal with. The ending doesn't give us the closure a film like this needs and the final scene is downright laughable. That's really all I can say about it. Albert Finney is a gifted actor, but there's was no way even he could pull this off believably.

Despite my misgivings, Hawke and especially Hoffman turn in superb work. While they're movie stereotypes with movie problems like drug addiction and unpaid child support, these actors invest them with something more and I tried my best to care what happened to them. The ludicrous screenplay just wouldn't let me though. I not only believed them as brothers, but also that Hoffman's character could be married to Marisa Tomei. If that's not great acting I don't know what it is. Speaking of Tomei her sole purpose in the film seems to be to generate as much traffic as possible for the Mr. Skin website by appearing topless for nearly every one of her scenes. No complaints from me on that front, but I just expected her to play a bigger role in the proceedings. She's all but discarded in the third act.

On the DVD's special features Lumet describes the film as a "melodrama. That's a very accurate description. I think the reason this film has garnered such high praise is because people are just thrilled that one of the directors from the golden age of 70's cinema hasn't sold out and is still producing work of value and integrity at his advanced age. I completely agree that that's admirable, but just hoped to get a little more out of the picture. Burdened with a mediocre screenplay, Lumet did the best he could and likely a lot better than many other directors would have. I really wanted to like this but just couldn't bring myself to. Attempts to tell a deep story involving family and betrayal were sabotaged by the script's silly games. Before The Devil Knows You're Dead isn't a bad film at all, it just isn't anything we haven't seen before in the heist genre.