Tuesday 20 September 2016

From the archive: "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"

You might blanch at using the M-word in this instance, but the masterminds plotting a jewellery heist in Sidney Lumet's tremendous thriller Before the Devil Knows You're Dead aren't the scuzzy low-lifes we usually associate with this genre. They are, rather, a pair of outwardly respectable brothers working white-collar jobs in the same corporate accountancy firm. Hank (Ethan Hawke) is a divorced screw-up perpetually late with his alimony payments; he's going along with the heist to pay for his daughter's latest school trip. The one thing he's got going for him is Gina (Marisa Tomei), with whom he enjoys weekly bunk-ups. The prime mover behind the heist is the older brother, Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a bullying libertine with an expensive heroin habit to fund. Gina, I should mention, is Andy's wife, frustrated by her hubby's drug-induced dysfunction.

The plan the brothers hatch is to turn over a mom-and-pop operation to pay for their lifestyle choices, and the first twist in Kelly Masterson's zigzagging script is that the jewellery store belongs to the siblings' own mom and pop (Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris), the spoils thus serving as an advance upon any inheritance, and payback for years of assumed parental neglect. Inevitably, the heist goes horribly wrong, and the film thereafter whips us back and forth in time, the better to show how information made available to Andy wasn't made available to Hank, or vice versa. The title refers to a hope among non-believers that they'll be given a half-hour's head start on the way to heaven before Satan can catch up with them; Masterson and Lumet evoke something like that same experience, of terrible revelations creeping up from behind on both characters and viewer alike.

Characters who therefore begin neck-and-neck at the start begin to nose in front of one another with each new time shift, or alternatively drop back into the pack; knowledge is the prize here (a key exchange towards the end: "You know I know." "Know what?" "I know."), and only a few of those runners and riders mentioned above will stay the course and make it past the finishing post. (Several more will be taken out back and shot before the credits roll.) What we're watching, in other words, is a sweepstakes being contested among thoroughbred performers, and the heist movie Devil kept reminding me of - partly because there hasn't been anything like this, or anything like this that was this clever or cunning, for some time - was Kubrick's racetrack classic The Killing.

Of course, ten years ago, heist-gone-wrong flicks with titles like City of Industry and Body Count were a dime-a-dozen: most hovered just above the direct-to-video route, churned out by Tarantino copyists. (Britain was suffering through its own crime wave, in the form of those post-Guy Ritchie gangster farragos.) At that time, Lumet would have been working on Night Falls on Manhattan, a very decent legal drama that was dismissed as old hat by audiences, and disappeared out of sight almost overnight. What the director brings to this new picture is the worldliness you'd perhaps expect from someone with fifty-odd years of experience behind him, but here it's backed up with a renewed vigour you'd have most likely thought beyond an 83-year-old man. (Devil may, in fact, be the most gripping thriller ever directed by an octogenarian - feel free to use that on your publicity, distributors.)

From his 1957 debut 12 Angry Men onwards, Lumet's films have displayed an passionate interest in law and order - specifically, the strengths and weaknesses of the criminal justice system - and a liberal conscience that can be (and has often been) attacked for generating drama of the worthiest kind. Nobody's ever really credited him with much of a sense of humour, though this latest project has a persistent undercurrent of black wit: even during the penultimate scenes, which feature some pretty horrific bloodshed, he leaves his camera running a few beats longer than is dramatically necessary to describe a suddenly dishevelled and puffy-faced Hoffman's struggles to fit himself through a doorframe. (No easy exits here.)

With a less assured hand behind that camera, this most intricately constructed of scripts might have been demolished, leaving behind the utterly incomprehensible, and a longing that events had been recounted in more linear fashion. Yet Lumet not only handles the shifts and jumps without any loss of clarity, he makes time and space between them for reflection, and unexpected pauses for thought: witness the long, wordless sequence in which Andy paces the antiseptic chambers of an upmarket drug den, readying himself for his next hit. (As we've never previously encountered this particular location, the sequence begets its own narrative tensions: what is Andy doing here? Who is the fey young man in a dressing gown who opened the door to him?)

In such moments, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead accomplishes something beyond that late 90s cycle of heist movies, which is to say something: about need and greed, and - more than that - about a particular species of pampered white American male, hopelessly and tragically unable or unwilling to do a damn thing for themselves. (At work and at play, Hank and Andy are always subcontracting, delegating and buck-passing; rarely, if ever, do we see them meet their responsibilities.) In those scenes involving Finney and Harris as the parents, you get a potent sense of an average, all-American, aspirational family turning inwards upon itself: the elders aghast at seeing all their hard work destroyed by the mewling obligation of their offspring.

Lumet has long been known as an actor's director, and here he makes fine use of the contrast between Hawke (skinny, prone to introspection, with a look that suggests he doesn't know how to look after himself properly) and Hoffman (burly, thunderously extroverted, subject to monstrous appetites). Yet he also mines them for deeper, richer subtleties, the latter's Andy making desperate attempts to connect, the former suggesting a perennial loser getting further and further out of his depth. (Hawke has a terrific, white-knuckle encounter with taunting blackmailer Michael Shannon in a bar: "Do you mind if I call you Chico?") Tomei lends a breathtaking physical presence to the one slightly underwritten part - you can see why Hank desires her so, and why Andy feels he's letting her down so badly - and Finney, after several lazy post-Brockovich cameos, comes through with his most persuasive work in decades.

Everything else is in place, too, from the skilfully muted cinematography to the sharp sound design: part of the film's impact as a thriller derives from the fact each gunshot and every explosion of rage has been turned up to eleven, and the same goes for Carter Burwell's insinuating score, lending matters an added dimension of scale. Burwell scored Hawke's movements in the millennial update of Hamlet, and the composer's deployment here is typical of a movie that takes material close to pulp and insistently, thoroughly works it over (in every sense of that phrase) until it resembles something closer to the Shakespearian. In an age when our cinema has become ever more keen on quick-fix stimuli for kids, it's a rare treat to encounter a work of slow-burn craftsmanship - one that grabs your attention from its very first images (Hoffman and Tomei in flagrante delicto) and thereafter reveals its full magnificence gradually, line by line, scene by scene, blood drop by blood drop.

(December 2007)

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead plays on Channel 4 tomorrow at 1.05am.  

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