Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)

I went to see Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead with all intentions of liking it. Not only is it directed by Sidney Lumet, whose Network and Dog Day Afternoon are personal favorites of mine, but it also boasts supporting performances by the great Albert Finney, a running contender for “best living actor,” and Marisa Tomei, one of the more underrated actresses in American film. The film has received almost unanimously positive reviews, and has been hailed by many critics that I trust as a return to form for the 83-year-old Lumet.

All of these prejudices notwithstanding, I don't at all care for Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, which seems to unfold in a melodramatic, convoluted and ultimately amateurish fashion. These criticisms seem astounding considering Lumet’s canonical status in the film world, but here he seems to be floundering and failing on many levels, from cinematography to pacing to character development.

The film stars Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, two of contemporary cinema’s more notorious overactors, as Andy and Hank Hanson, a couple of brothers who decide to rob a suburban jewelry store in order to solve their respective financial woes. The catch is that this is no ordinary store: it happens to belong to their parents, painfully underdeveloped but competently played by Finney and Rosemary Harris. This far-fetched but intriguing premise fails to take shape, primarily because the film never succeeds in completely selling the viewer on the possibility that two so feckless characters as the brothers Hanson could ever concoct let alone attempt such an audacious scheme. Andy, for his part, is set up as adequately sleazy, with his faux tough-guy talk and his penchant for snorting cocaine on the sly and making visits to an upscale drug dealer’s apartment to be injected with smack. But he comes as far too self-absorbed to ever consider such a plan. As for Hank, he is in need of money to pay child support to his shrewish ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and prove himself in the eyes of his young daughter, but nothing in his character suggests that he could be capable of legitimately devious activity. Similarly, the film’s script, by first timer Kelly Masterson, does little to establish what, if any, animosity exists between Andy and Hank and their parents that would make the brothers want to use their family in such a way. Only three-fourths of the way into the film are we provided with a motivation for Andy’s behavior-- but at that point I didn’t really care anymore.

Which brings me to one of the major problems with Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead: the film, like many others these days, jumps around in its narrative time frame, showing different scenes out of order and from many different points of view. This is not necessarily bad in and of itself, as many films have used such a technique to their advantage, Kurosawa’s classic Rashomon being the exemplar. But when it is used merely as a stylistic flourish and not as a legitimate formal technique (Tommy Lee Jones’s disappointing 2005 directorial debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada comes to mind), it can ruin an otherwise interesting story. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead may very well have been a much more intense and dramatic film had Lumet and Masterson not opted for such an elaborate conceit, but as the film stands we get several scenes where motivation and explanation are given after the action that they trigger, a technique that does little to build narrative tension. It’s a lazy style that attempts to make individual dramatic touches and bits of camera movement and set design have greater impact by giving the viewer some kind of omniscient perspective on the plot, but it does so at the expense of the film as a whole, as several scenes appear to have been added merely for the sake of fitting neatly into this serpentine plot device. That such a style appears on its surface to be a sign of a carefully constructed script is no doubt a part of its appeal, but few films have used it to their advantage.

In the same way that it squanders a potentially interesting story idea, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead also misuses its excellent supporting cast. Marisa Tomei’s role as Andy’s unsatisfied wife Gina is the most egregious waste. While she holds her own as the object of Andy’s half-baked affections, there seems to be little for her character to do other than look alternately bored and upset. Gina is having an affair with Hank, a dramatic twist that doesn’t play out in any meaningful way until a exchange between the two brothers in the film’s final moments so absurdly melodramatic that it feels as though its been lifted from one of the many prime time crime shows currently being circulated on network television. Indeed, many of the film’s secondary characters seem to be stilted archetypes, at their best recycled from Lumet’s oeuvre of New York crime movies, at their worst from re-runs of NYPD Blue.

Unfortunately, in it’s worst moments Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead does play more like a TV show than a film, with the gratuitous sex and copious shots of a naked Marisa Tomei seemingly inserted to remind viewers that they’re watching a serious film and not an episode of Law and Order. I’ve heard reviewers compare its family tensions and epic falls to the rhythms of Greek tragedy, and I couldn’t disagree more. Good tragedy works on having believable, well-sketched characters and a tightly plotted story to create some kind of illumination, where even though the characters may lose everything we in the audience come away with some knowledge or understanding of human nature that we didn’t have before. Not only does Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead not provide much insight on why its characters lose out in the end, but the only thing it offers its audience in return for their pity is a shoddy mess of a story.

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