Thursday, November 29, 2007

Don't Try This At Home: review of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Moviegoers beware, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Sidney Lumet’s new film staring Phillip Seymour-Hoffman and Ethan Hawke, may make you feel like reaching for the aspirin even if you don’t have a headache. Not that Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a bad movie. On the contrary, it is an exceptionally well-crafted film with excellent acting and a unique, gritty style that will probably land it in contention for Best Picture at the Oscars; however, some of the movie's moments are so tense and jarring, and Phillip Seymour-Hoffman's character so incredibly repulsive that taken together they may induce a need for painkillers in the audience. Seymour-Hoffman's character Andy displays a disdain for others and a childish self-indulgence that make him overwhelmingly despicable. The only thing equaling his capacity for evil and manipulation seems to be his cowardice and his ability to produce flushed, pig-like smiles in between doses of cocaine and heroin. The moments in which he is shirtless and his pasty, ample flesh occupies the screen are some of the more regrettable ones of modern film, although their necessity in the context of the storyline may be debated. Seymour-Hoffman delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as Andy, the older of two brothers who hatches a plan to rob their parents’ jewelry store. Andy cajoles his younger brother, Hank (played by Ethan Hawke), into executing the robbery. In the spirit of many amateur-heist movies, the film traces the fallout of the robbery after it goes awry. Lumet has had veteran experience shooting this kind of picture. In 1975 his directed Dog Day Afternoon, the classic depiction of the true story of a bank robbery in Brooklyn by an amateur criminal and the ensuing police siege and media circus. Dog Day Afternoon developed a portrait of an idiosyncratic amateur’s criminal’s psychology and personality; Pacino’s character was gay, manic-depressive, and a cross-dresser.

Lumet's 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon explored the relationship between crime and an individuals' unique psychological disturbance.

Lumet’s earlier film explored the motivation for a crime from a psychological perspective and used the claustrophobia caused by the police siege to produce a pressure-cooker of a character study. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead abandons the closed-confines scenario (Pacino’s character only exits the besieged bank at the end of the film) that defined Dog Day Afternoon and continued the tradition of Hitchcock’s Rear Window. In contrast, we are transported from interior to interior and story to story belonging to each of the characters as the mounting precariousness and desperation of the brothers’ situation maintains the pressure that the confined space created in Dog Day Afternoon. While the earlier film traced the motivations for the crime to the character’s experience and personality, there is little such scrutiny paid to them in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Indeed, the motivations for the crime are nothing less than ordinary: Hank and Andy both need money and a way to escape from their personal problems. The focus of the film is the breakdown of family, relationships, and sanity in the wake of a criminal scheme gone awry.

I don’t want to be a spoiler, so I won’t reveal any more details of the plot. Suffice it to say, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead delivered enough twists and thrills to get me through at least one week of boring temp work (I am currently on assignment at a labor union doing data entry in their member dues database), which is saying a lot.

Marisa Tomei knocks 'em dead as Andy's beleagured wife, while Hoffman and Hawke do most of the actual killing.
Worth seeing for the caliber of the performances by Hoffman and Hawke, as well as the beautiful half-naked body of the stunning Marisa Tomei in the role of Andy’s wife (and Hank’s lover). Among these gems of performance there is also the coolly indifferent presence of a laconic drug-dealer resembling the David Bowie of "Diamond Dogs" days.

I give it 3 ½ out of 4 stars. Recommended for strong profanity, adult situations, and well-crafted drama revolving around morally questionable acts.

1 comment:

Eli Berman said...

you're a talented writer, Tito! Keep it up!