Hurting the Ones You Love
When I think about Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Carter Burwell's score is the first thing that jumps into my head. It's memorably oppressive, one of those themes that threatens to take over the picture, yet never does because the film itself features so many other strong components that the score becomes simply one of its tools. The movie has a clockwork narrative and crack performances from its principles, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke. And it's held together by a trim style that wastes no space its given, courtesy of director Sidney Lumet.
Lumet has always been very hit or miss with me, but, like most movie fans out there, I'm pulling for the veteran. Last year, I was grossly disappointed by Find Me Guilty, a somewhat comedic take on mobsters. With Before the Devil, I consider Lumet more back in form. The movie's a lean crime drama, with the kind of plot the Coen Brothers might've mined for some misanthropic humor. But Lumet knows he has a fascinating little family story on his hands, with a non-linear storytelling angle that's already been compared to the one in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing.
Before the Devil wastes little time in showing us a botched robbery. Normally, such a sequence might be found in the middle of a film, with the first act about the planning and the third act about what happens after it all goes wrong, but with Devil, the heist is only what gets your attention and drives the narrative, and the suspense comes from discovering more about the characters involved in it, and what they're further capable of. After we see the sequence, the film starts flashing back and flashing forward, carefully revealing more and more about the members of this one family -- for it all involves only one family, as we find out the robbery was committed by the sons (Hoffman and Hawke) against their parents' (Albert Finney, Rosemary Harris) jewelry store.
And what a messed up family it is. Hawke turns in an unexpected performance as the younger brother, Hank, a sad sack divorced from an ex-wife who's always hounding him for the money he owes her. Finney as the father, Charles, starts out appearing normal, but soon hardens as the events unfold. And Hoffman's character, Andy, looks successful, but emptiness lingers around him, as he's revealed to have a drug habit and an unfulfilling marriage to a frustrated trophy wife (Marisa Tomei). The skill of the movie comes in using its structure to peel away the outer layers of these people and to slowly reveal the depths of their psychological damage. We find out just how craven and pathetic Hank is; see clues to the manner of how Charles viewed both his boys; and observe how Andy is the product of a strict upbringing which has forced his life to dead end at a pile of unfulfilled expectations for himself.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is compelling in the way that any group of people's problems are compelling, once you dig deep enough to get to know them. Unfortunately for me, these days I can only get so involved while watching characters collapse under the weight of their own burdens, and the general burden of being human. These downward spirals have been continuing to lose their appeal to me. Still, I find much to admire in this movie, particularly its mechanics. Its working parts are effective -- there's the fierce acting, the good pacing, the raw emotions, that ominous score. And there's Lumet, stirring the pot, watching as his characters find out that a crime-gone-wrong is one of the harshest ways to illuminate and aggravate your weaknesses, giving them the chance to destroy you.
(Released by ThinkFilm and rated "R" for strong graphic sexuality, nudity, violence, drug use, and language.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.