(This post is being published as part of Scenes of the Crime blogathon under sub genre Mysteries and Thrillers. The last movie of one of the greatest American directors Sidney Lumet, a dark, brilliantly shot thriller, with a non linear narration. And featuring top notch performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney)
May your glass be ever full,
May the roof over your head be always strong,
And may you be in heaven
Half an hour before the devil knows you’re dead.- Irish Drinking Toast
Sidney Lumet’s Before The Devil Knows You are Dead, starts off straight with a steamy scene, that has the heroine Gina Hanson( Marisa Tomei) being done by her husband, Andy Hanson( Phillipe Seymour Hoffman). It does look a bit incongruous to see the rather gorgeous looking Gina being done in by the pot bellied, pudgy looking Andy, making you feel how she ended up with him. Yep while it can be disconcerting to watch Hoffman’s bare behind, Ms. Tomei’s full Monty more than makes up for it. The couple has a post sex talk in one of those typical L-Shaped sheets, we get to see in Hollywood movies. As the rather inconsequential scene, fades away, that is where we come to the movie’s critical scene, or the plot point, around which the entire movie revolves. We only know a robbery is going to be comitted, and soon enough a masked intruder holds up a jewelery and diamond store. During the hold up, a shoot out occurs between an elderly lady, the store owner, and the robber, with the latter being shot fatally dead, while the lady is critically injured.
Sidney Lumet takes the robbery as the main plot device to keep going to and fro, in a narrative that is non linear, as the characters and the motivations come slowly into the frame. Ok first things first, Before The Devil Knows You are Dead is not an easy watch, at any stretch. While the narrative does go around in a non linear fashion, it is easy to follow, it is not much of a mind bender, as the character’s motivations become quite apparent. There are no big twists at any stage, as everything does proceed on conventional lines, and even the ending while being a shocker is not a surprise, it was something one could see coming, if we keep track of the characters. The hard part in watching it is however the dark, despairing mood, and the utterly unsympathetic characters. The mood is cynical throughout, offering no hopes for redemption, and add to it a slow pace, with silences, that can quite often suffocate the viewer. But once you are prepared to handle the dark mood of the movie, what you get to see is a masterpiece.
For close to 5 decades, Sidney Lumet has been making some of the greatest movies ever. Roger Ebert calls him a “national treasure”, now while that is for the Americans to decide, i have no hesitation in calling Lumet a cinematic treasure, words like genius, maestro, auteur do not really do justice to this brilliant movie maker. He is the director who created some of the finest legal dramas, 12 Angry Men, The Verdict, brilliant cop dramas like Serpico, Q&A, crime dramas like Dog Day Afternoon, Anderson Tapes, or dark satires like Network. But where Lumet scores big time is in his characterization, the characters in his movies are fleshed out so wonderfully. Like a master sculptor, he chisels out every feature, every part of the character with such loving detail, right down to the warts, and like an expert pyschiatrist, he delves deep into the mind of his characters, reading them, decoding their motivations, and then setting up the relationships between them. Lumet’s strength has been the human persona and the drama revolving around people’s actions. More often than not, his movies work on a character intending to perform an action, and the result ending up something more than what they imagined for.
In a way Before The Devil Knows You Are Dead, references back to Lumet’s earlier Dog Day Afternoon, where Al Pacino’s botched up bank robbery , spirals into events that go out of control. The store hold up and the subsequent shoot out that leads to the fatal injury to the elderly lady, is what sets in motion a series of events, which was not what was intended to happen. The critically injured lady at the store happens to be Nanette Hanson, the mother of Andy and his brother Hank Hanson( Ethan Hawke). The key here is that the entire store robbery was Andy’s own baby, and that is where the character’s motivations come into picture. What Lumet has done here is to pick up elements of the noir, heist genre, and set it against a dysfunctional family backdrop.
The only characters who are normal and likable in the movie is their father Charlie Hanson( Albert Finney), and his wife Nanette. In fact Lumet here is clearly contrasting the loving relation between Charlie and his wife, with the more messed up lives of Andy and Hank.
The thing about real estate accounting is that you can, you can, add down the page or across the page and everything works out. Everyday, everything adds up. The, the total is always the sum of its parts. It’s, uh, clean. It’s clear. Neat, absolute. But my life, it, uh, it doesn’t add up. It, uh… Nothing connects to anything else. It’s, uh… I’m not, I’m not the sum of my parts. All my parts don’t add up to one… to one me, I guess.
On the surface of it, Andy appears normal, he has a nice job, a nice apartment, a beautiful trophy wife, and manages to make it out to regular vacations abroad, in short living the American dream. Beyond the surface though however it is one large mess, he has been embezzling money from his company’s account to finance his cocaine habit, the auditors are hot on his heels. Andy yearns for his father’s love, whom he feels does not understand him. And to make matters worse, his wife Gina, feeling repressed carries on an affair with his brother Hank. In short Andy hates his own life, and it is clear that Gina for all the humping on and the lovey dovey talk in the starting, is not too happy either.
Hank on the other hand, does not even have a pretense to looking good. He is divorced, owes a large amount of money to his ex wife Martha ( Amy Ryan), whom he has to pay for child support, and lives in a broken down home. He is so down on his luck, that he does not even have the money to pay for his daughter’s school outing to see The Lion King, prompting her to call him a loser. Andy while outwardly successful is as much as a loser as Hanks is. It is just that he happens to be more smarter and more devious.
But little Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!- Robert Burns
Again not sure if Sidney Lumet has ever read Burns, or been inspired by him, but this particular couplet sums up the main theme. Andy makes up what he believes is a perfect plan, to rob his parents Jewelry store, and then split the money up. His reasoning is based on what he “thinks” are the conditions, at the time of the heist, only the old lady Doris would be there, no real guns would be used, and add to it, the store is insured, so his parents do not really lose anything. In essence, Andy believes he has plotted out the perfect “crime”, which would be a win-win situation for all, he and Hank get the money, his parents get the insurance amount. But then every perfect crime, goes wrong, because of one stupid blunder, and here it is Hank who messes it up, when he hires Bobby Lasorda, an expert crook to carry out the heist. Bobby however carries a real gun, instead of the toy gun, which Andy was planning for. Add to it, the old lady Doris has a day off, which results in their mother handling the store that fateful day. Andy had planned the “perfect heist”, but it has gone awry, mainly due to the blunder made by Hank, as also fate ensuring that his mother would be the one in the store, with tragic consequences.
Sorry’ ain’t gonna pay the bills, Chico!
Andy’s perfect planning, foresight everything goes for a toss, as it sets into a motion a chain of events, each threatening to pull the brothers deeper into an abyss. Bobby’s brother in law, Dex( Michael Shannon), begins to blackmail Hank, to pay for his sister, Chris, who happens to be Bobby’s widow. Andy’s superiors at work, are now hot on his neck, demanding to know of the irregularities in his department’s accounts. Add to it, the marriage between Gina and Andy goes further down. And above all Charlie not satisfied with the police investigation, decides to dig deeper on his own.
Watching the movie is like going along with the characters deep into an abyss, there appears to be no respite from the unending coldness, the darkness, the despair. Every action initiated by Andy, triggers another crisis, that just drags him and us deeper down. And the fact that Hank’s hair brained responses at times, is a reason, does not really make things better. We helplessly watch the lives of Andy & Hank, hurtling down and down. But much as we want to empathize with them, we cannot. Unlike in Dog Day Afternoon, where we do end up sympathizing with Pacino’s character, here we feel no remorse for them. We want to feel sorry for Andy in the scene, where he breaks down in the car while driving with Gina, but then we know that he was one who had manipulated his brother into the situation. We want to feel sorry for the loser Hank, but then we see that his idiotic actions are what keeps precipitating the crisis further and further.
For the first time ever, Lumet shoots the entire movie in HD, that gives the movie, it’s rather shadowy, dark feel, keeping with the mood of the plot. To me this movie would be one of the best in the Noughties ever, matter of fact, i feel 2007 was the best ever year in terms of quality, we had this , There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men, Michael Clayton. It is tragic, dark and depressing, but it is not a movie that would leave your memories. It is at one level a heist flick, but at a deeper level, it is a fascinating character study set against a dysfunctional family backdrop, and a crime gone wrong scenario. The movie is also served by some of the finest ensemble acting ever in a long time.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, once again shows his talent, in a role that mixes a devious mind with a vulnerable side. Especially brilliant in the part, where he breaks down in the car. Ethan Hawke, going far away from his pretty boy image, is first rate, playing a grungy loser, whose actions, precipitate a further descent into an abyss. Albert Finney as usual, packs an emotional wallop, as their distraught father, dealing with his wife’s death, watch his expressions in the final scene, it hits you somewhere. Marisa Tomei, though not having a major part, nevertheless does well, and this has to be one of her sexiest on screen performance, maybe after The Wrestler.