' Cinema Romantico: Before The Devil Knows You're Dead: The Opening Scene

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead: The Opening Scene

In my original review back in January of the 2007 Sidney Lumet directed "Before The Devil Knows You're Dead" I wrote the following: "What makes a good beginning? Well, if you ask one of those studio moguls or producers who profess to know 'what the people want' they'll tell you something slam-bang, something in your face, something most likely with explosions. I would disagree. The finest beginnings should in some sort of way summarize everything that's ahead of us without giving anything away. In the best of the best beginnings it's a situation where it could function all on its own as a short film. 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead' has one of the greatest beginnings I've ever witnessed."

After that I decided not to reveal even the slightest spoiler to you, my loyal readers, in regards to this wonderous opening. But that, of course, was six months ago. Circumstances have changed. It's been out on DVD for awhile. You've had your opportunity to see it. And I just re-watched it (on the heels of watching Woody Allen's latest blatant misfire "Cassandra's Dream" which explores the same themes as "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" - I pondered blogging about the Woodman getting schooled on the court of screenwriting by first-timer Kelly Masterson but decided that would depress me too much) and, damn it, I want to talk about the opening 'cuz, Lord, I love it. So I'm going to. Therefore consider this your (immense) spoiler warning.

So, to make sure we're clear, a perfect movie beginning would include 1.) Foreshadowing of what is to come and 2.) An introduction of the film's theme while doing both of these things in such a way that it could function as a short film while still being a part of the film we're about to see.

Fade In.

The initial shot in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is of Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and Gina (Marisa Tomei) on a bed without, shall we say, the benefit of clothing and engaged in acts not appropriate for toddlers to witness. All right, so if we're to sum up this image in a single word what word would we use? Euphoria.

The opening image represents Euphoria.

Next is an overhead shot of Andy and Gina, both in the frame, laying side by side in the bed, and both almost hysterical with laughter. Andy references the fact he thought they were an "old, married couple" and so we gather this is not something which happens often anymore in their relationship. There is more dialogue, Andy tells Gina to feel his heart and she does, and then she wonders, jokingly, if he will "make it to dinner?" More laughter. Still Europhic.

But then Andy says "I wish we could live like this all the time." Reality creeping in. And, as it does, music appears on the soundtrack for the first time, as if the previous moments were so perfect, so untainted, they did not require that accompaniment for any additional effect.

Gina replies to Andy, "Do we have enough money to live in Brazil for the rest of our lives?" The key in this line is her tone of voice. She says it in a way that is make-believe. She knows they don't, and he knows they don't, but she says it anyway, purely from a hypothetical standpoint. But Andy says to her, "I'll think about it." This line heralds the complete introduction of what?

Reality. It's no longer creeping in - it's there.

Gina, disappointed, rolls over and away from Andy. He asks her, "Where did you go?" She does not reply but we recognize she has gone back to the place where their relationship was prior to this Brazil trip.

He leans in close to her and whispers, twice, "Everything's wonderful." But it's not. He knows it. She knows it. And then she says, "I just don't feel like such a fuck-up when I'm here."

End Scene.

Whew.

So, is this a short film? Why, yes. Yes, it is. In four or five minutes we have gone through the entire spectrum of human emotion. Euphoria to sadness. It has a full arc, more full and satisfying than most feature-length films, mind you. While at the same time this trajectory mirrors the fashion in which the film plays out (when taken in a linear fashion, not in the jump-cut style the film employs). Euphoria in the planning of a perfect crime and that you will get rich quick when you absolutely need the money. Things go wrong but you think you can salvage it and, thus, make empty reassurances to yourself. Finally, unavoidable sadness at the end. Defeat. The film's entire narrative is essentially encapsulated in this beginning while it also sets up key events to come (like Andy and Gina's wanting to escape) and foreshadows (as in Andy's beating heart which turns up later) and establishes the theme - all the characters are fuck-ups and are desperate to feel like they're not.

This beginning is utterly remarkable. Woody Allen's opening to "Manhattan" (back when he had still "it") is a visual poem to his favorite city and while it establishes the prevalent romantic theme and could theoretically work as a short it does not foreshadow, stands outside of the movie to come and is also more of a technical exercise. "Last of the Mohicans" start does not stand outside the movie and foreshadows with three main characters on the hunt and then honoring the dead which parallels the conclusion but is this a short film? No. Likewise "Chinatown" belongs to the movie itself and foreshadows while establishing a theme but wouldn't work all alone. And none of these films manage to present us the arc to come.

Those are some of my favorite movies, folks, but I admit their openings pale in comparison to "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead". It's a How-To that should be taught in screenwriting courses all over the country but probably will never even get a passing mention. That fact is a Greek tragedy.

Much like the opening scene itself.

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