' ' Cinema Romantico: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Let's begin with the beginning, shall we? I've gone on and on about how many luminous endings there were in so many 2007 movies but I've hardly mentioned anything in regards to movie beginnings. The beginning is just as hard to do properly as an ending. 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. I adored it so much I nearly leapt from my seat and dashed to the projection room to stop it and rewind it so we could all digest it a second time.

And so I struggle with whether or not I should give away any details regarding this most sterling of starts. People will usually criticize you for giving away the end, but what of the opening? Do you play by the same rules? I will. You won't get any specifics from me. Maybe just what I already said: it summarizes without spoiling and could work as a short film. You need to see it. This movie actually came out in 2007 and I just got around to it so hopefully it will be arriving on video soon and so skip on over to the Netflix queue and go ahead and save "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" and then when it comes out you'll get it and you'll see.

Okay. Breathe in....breathe out....and on to the rest of the movie. (But I will forewarn if you don't know any plot details of the film and don't want to know any you should wait for Netflix since it's already in your Netflix queue at this point. Right?)

Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffmann) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) are brothers. Andy and Gina (Marisa Tomei) have a marriage on the proverbial rocks and Andy doubles as the supervisor of the payroll department at some company where Hank also works. The brothers have monetary issues. Andy has a drug habit of the high-end kind and it seems there may be some other things that aren't revealed. Hank has a daughter and an ex-wife (Amy Ryan - yes, the Amy Ryan - the one we established several days ago gave the best performance of 2007). Andy and Hank's father (Albert Finney) and mother (Rosemary Harris) are old, but still in love, and own a suburban jewelry store. Might you see where this is going?

Andy hatches the scheme to knock off their own folks' jewelry store and whether or not all goes awry I leave you to decide but in what way and how much goes awry I don't know if you'll be able to figure out quite as easily. The movie invites comparisons to Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs" as it contains not just a jewelry store heist but skips back and forth and around and around in time. But "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is, dare I say it, better. I think it's better because it's more emotional, cuts deeper, and is about more than sublime dialogue and someone getting his ear lopped off.

The writing of Kelly Masterson and the direction of Sidney Lumet (83 years old and the man who brought you "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Serpico, amongst others) is simply exquisite. The script does not offer things up in black and white. It doesn't fill in every blank. No long-winded monologues are given to advise the audience of all which has happened between father and sons and husbands and wives before we arrived at this point. There are also so many teeny-tiny things hovering on the edges that don't necessarily foreshadow but provide inordinate amount of texture - a quality all but gone from current screenwriting. Notice when the IRS audit is announced at Andy's office and his boss advises of the terminated employees still getting paid. This isn't brought back up but seems so amazingly correct for the character and deepens Andy just a tad. Even Andy and Hank's sister who appears only a few times and very briefly is given one line that sums up her character entirely.

In relation to direction watch how Lumet stages each and every scene to maximize drama even if it would appear there is no drama to be found. Andy arrive at a luxurious NYC apartment with a scantily clad woman making breakfast and he pours a drink and removes his suit coat and looks out the window and crosses his room and enters another room and then takes off his shirt and you're thinking....where the hell are they going with this?! Brilliant.

The acting is remarkable all around. Hoffmann shows the charm he must have had to get where he is but also convinces us of his desperation and depression. Ethan Hawke is a marvel. This is a perfect role for him as the drinks-too-much, low-on-money, can't-get-it-together brother. Watch his reaction late in the movie when Hoffmann is yelling at him, "Did you touch anything?!" Tomei sometimes seems resigned to the Woman Who Won An Oscar (For "My Cousin Vinny") That She Wouldn't Have Won. Well, maybe she shouldn't have won that one, but this woman - get it straight - can act. Hoffmann again blows his top in his car with Tomei in the passenger seat but it's her reaction shots and her line reading of "Andy...." that got to me. Albert Finney is a living legend and gets a role here that perhaps could've just been a characture but he makes it work. There are many hints to him not having been a good father but it's not totally spelled out (as it should not be) but Finney plays it in a way that makes you think he's not showing his whole hand. And Amy Ryan - oh, this Amy Ryan - gets an underwritten role and is just playing another bad mother (like she did in "Gone Baby Gone") but not quite as bad and she plays her differently here - more like a woman stuck in a battle of wills with her idiot ex-husband. That's a signal of immense talent - someone who takes such a small role without any real depth and still does something with it. Keep an eye on the smile she gives to Hawke at their daughter's play. It's incredible.

I could go on and on and further and further but maybe it's time to stop. How good was last year for movies? So good that it's 2008 and the great movies from 2007 still keep coming.


Rory Larry said...

But what about that end? I'm still not sure what to think of that end. More sure than with There Will Be Blood but still unsure.

Anonymous said...

I liked the end. They kept kind of alluding to the fact that maybe the father wasn't such a good father but you didn't if that was true or, if it was true, just how bad of a father he was. And then the end clues you into the truth. For me, it worked.