Thursday, April 1, 2010

Review: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Sidney Lumet, 2007)


One of the best films of 2007, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a shining jewel in the stunning career of 83 year old Sidney Lumet (director of 12 Angry Men and Dog Day Afternoon) and stars Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei and Albert Finney. Utilizing a non-linear narrative, the film is a horrific tale of desperation as two struggling brothers, for a quick cash fix, plot to rob their parents’ private owned jeweler store, with disastrous results that ultimately destroy both their lives and those close to them.


The film opens with Andy (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and his wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) making love and then discussing their dreams of moving to Brazil. It is evident that their marriage is rocky and the passion they exert is a surprising change to their struggle. The image fades to black and the words: ‘May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.’ The next scene is tagged ‘The Day of the Robbery’ and we witness an elderly woman in her jeweler store held at gunpoint and forced into a corner by a threatening thief , who begins throwing money and jewelry into a bag. She manages to shoot him when he is distracted and, after being shot herself, shoots him again through the glass entry to the store. Watching from the car, a disguised man we later learn to be named Hank (Ethan Hawke) drives swiftly from the scene distraught.


The non-linear plot construction is accentuated when the image pauses on a character and shatters to the sound of splintering glass thrusting us to a past or future period of the plot. Following the robbery the next sequence has the title ‘Hank: Three days before the Robbery'. We begin to see the origins of this disastrous robbery attempt. After attending his daughter’s baseball game, and bringing her home to her mother, we discover that Hank is short on money and owes three month’s contribution to her schooling. He meets his brother Andy at a bar, and is visibly frustrated with his life, and Andy questions this, declaring that he is unsure if Hank “has any balls anymore.” He puts a proposition to Hank, regarding the robbery of a store, a quick fix to their financial problems and a victimless crime. Hank is shocked at Andy’s proposition and protests to the idea. In addition to his problems, Hank is sleeping with Gina secretly during the week. In the next sequence at Hank’s daughter’s school play we recognize the elderly woman from the jeweler store, and discover it is in fact Hank and Andy’s mother, and the pieces begin to come together. At this time though, it is unknown to Hank that the target is their parents’ store and, intrigued, he goes to Andy’s office to discuss the sting, where he is fully filled in. Following this, we see the robbery from Hank’s point-of-view, as he brings in his friend Bobby to assist. Bobby decides to go alone, leaving Hank in the car to see the plan fall apart before his eyes.



Slowly, after watching the robbery initially, we are revealed to the origins of this event including the individual struggles of the brothers (child support, broken marriage, embezzlement and drug abuse), their desperation, Andy’s plan and Charles’ (Albert Finney) driving test, which resulted in Nanette Hanson running the store for the morning. Following the event we see the family in mourning, the breakdown of Hank as the loose ends begin to emerge, the funeral, the familial blaming, and finally the brothers’ last desperate attempt to remain uncovered and escape. Charles, frustrated by the idleness of the police begins an investigation himself. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a tragic melodrama of desperate, despicable men displaying narcissistic morals. At one level it is an intricate exploration of family dysfunction, and at another it is a controlled examination of increasingly insane criminal ineptitude.
Hank, the psychologically weaker of the two brothers, expresses the appropriate remorse and becomes a hermit, while Andy remains with the family while trying to fix the operation, avoid a work audit which can potentially ruin him, and deal with Gina’s leave. The strain mounted upon him is clearly evident when they rob the drug dealer’s apartment and he loses all control, killing both the dealer and one of his intoxicated clients. His patience with Hank is minimal as he repeatedly roars: “did you touch anything?” Andy even pulls a gun on Hank once he learns that he has been sleeping with Gina, and Hank is so disgusted with his life and so distraught by what he has caused, he welcomes his brother to fire upon him. All the characters are pushed to the extreme, even Charles, who kills Andy in cold blood in his hotel room at the conclusion.


The performances are outstanding with Seymour-Hoffman as usual providing the most impressive skill and diversity. But Ethan Hawke and Albert Finney are both excellent too. Marisa Tomei was certainly the weakest but her role didn’t give her much to work with. Even the minor characters all pack an emotional punch. Devil is also cleverly shot and edited, with the dialogic and emotional exchanges timed perfectly and the panning camera frequently captures the individuals at their most vulnerable. Another memorable feature is the haunting score by Carter Burwell, which often accompanies the sequences of the robbery. The somber, overtly melodramatic melody acts as a ‘sardonic, rueful commentary on what has gone before’ (Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle).

Devil as a Melodrama:
Melodrama is a genre whose conventions make ideologies ‘visible and watchable’. Familial and social pressures act on characters to produce narrative conflict – a conflict between the desires of the character and the pressures that impede the satisfaction of those desires. This is evident in both Hank and Andy. Under pressure from their lifestyle, they are driven to an insane idea to escape their problems. Money is the obstacle. They desire happiness and to be loved by their wife/child. Andy makes it clear that Hank ‘don’t have shit’ in this world, while he personally needs money to cover some embezzlement scams and to fund his high-end drug habit. Andy draws up the plans to rob their parents’ jewelry store, excluding the possibility of violence, and leaving them with their insurance to cover the loss. Left in the inept hands of Hank, what potentially could have been a simple hold-up turns into a bloody crime scene and the pair have to bear the responsibility of the death of their mother. The strength of the melodramatic form lies in the amount of dust the story raises along the road, the cloud of over determined irreconcilables, which put up a resistance to being neatly settled, in the last five minutes, into a happy end. Looking at this idea I view Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’ as an anti-melodrama, abandoning the conventions of the ‘happy ending’ and leaving the viewer nothing less than depressed and repulsed by what they have witnessed. The film actually becomes more out-of-control towards the conclusion, rather than the regression into chaos reversed, and the characters returning to their normal lives, all of them end up dead or scarred. Justice is ultimately served to Andy but he pays the ultimate price.

The ‘happy ending’ of melodrama involves a recognition that the characters and conflict exist within social forces greater than the characters themselves. Melodrama works toward exposing ideologies while also recognizing the pressure of the happy ending that allows characters to find a comfortable place within the patriarchal order.
Sidney Lumet declares that his film is a melodrama and there is evidence to suggest that it is fact both a re-working of classic 1950’s American melodrama and also a rejection of the conventions that made them so effective and popular. Predominantly, melodramas deal with the emotional strain put on women in a bourgeois society. In this film, its central characters are two men, driven to extreme lengths to fuel their desires and stay afloat in this drowning corporate world. It differs from a tragedy because in a tragedy “the conflict is within man; in melodrama it is between men, or between men and things. While tragedy is concerned with the nature of man; melodrama is concerned with the habits of man (and things).” In a perfect summary of the Hanson brothers in this film, melodramatic characters act out of contradiction to varying degrees and gradually face impossible resolutions and probable defeats – they do not fully grasp the forces they are up against or their own instinctive behavior. Acting on impulse, Andy believes he has the perfect plan, but fails to recognize that this act of pure evil will probably end in a defeat. He was blind to the ineptitude of his brother, and still shows almost no remorse, even after the event.



Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is both a tragedy, in that Andy has had continued conflict with his father for much of his life and these realities are brought back to him once the family is forced to become closer as a result of the event, but also melodramatic because the conflict between the brothers foreshadows their inner demons, which we can blame to some extent for the outcome. Much of the film is a stage for domestic conflict, between Hank and his ex-wife, Andy and Gina, and Charles and Andy. Devil is one of the most brutally powerful melodramas of the decade, and it is a film whose sequences will remain with you long after the closing credits roll.


My Rating: 4 1/2 Stars

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