Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (ThinkFilm, October 26th)
Dir: Sidney Lumet; written by: Kelly Masterson
NYFF public screenings: Friday, October 12th: 6pm, Saturday, October 13th: 12:45pm
Master filmmaker Sidney Lumet latest effort, Before the Devil Knows Your Dead, is the tautest melodrama I’ve seen in quite some time and at 83, Lumet has lost none of his edge. While I didn’t necessarily find this new picture, which stars Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei, and Rosemary Harris, to be on the par with, Dog Day Afternoon or The Verdict — both among my all-time favorite films — it certainly kept me in its grip from the moment go. The difference between this one and the other two is that this film is story driven while the others are character oriented. The story is as close to Greek or Shakespearean tragedy as one can get and at times the characters seem to be little more than vehicles propelling the storylines forward. But what storylines there are!
The opening sequence finds married couple Andy (Hoffman) and Gina Hanson (Tomei) in an exceptional moment of blissful passion while vacationing in Brazil and their post-coital dialog reveals a clearly unhappy marriage Andy is a real estate executive with a cushy office over looking Manhattan and an unhappy wife, Gina, who replaces feelings of emptiness with expensive meaningless objects and sex with her brother-in-law, Hank (Hawke). This is as much bliss as the picture is going to offer and over the course of the next 110 minutes there is just a sense of menace and dread. Tomei, naked through most of her scenes, might just get her career back on track with this role. Not sure if that’s a good thing or simply a sad case of what an actress has to do get herself noticed these days. Finney plays Charles, the stoic patriarch. Whoever came up with the idea to cast Albert Finney as Hoffman’s dad had a gem of an idea and the relationship between the two is a key element of this tale.
The main plot involves a suburban jewelry heist engineered by the two brothers and is told from various perspectives while cutting back and forth in time (chapter headings make the time shifts easy to deal with) slowly revealing various connections between characters and parts they play in this twisted tale and how awfully -unbelievably awfully–things go awry. While thrillers can go either way, even with the brisk editing and exceptional digital cinematography, there is no doubt how badly things will end up. Those characters who do survive the increasingly tense, desperate and brutal climax to this tale do, you can be sure that there’s gonna be a lot of suffering first.
Finney is a wonder. At 71, he actually looks fitter than he has in a while but his Charles is every bit the codger and Finney slides into the role easily. Recently, as I’ve watched him enter his “winter” years, I’ve grown anxious thinking that he won’t be around forever but as Lumet (and others) have proven, age is relative, these days. From Tom Jones to Miller’s Crossing, right through Before The Devil Knows Your Dead, he’s always a joy to watch. In a movie that has a number of forceful roles, Finney hangs back. Charles’ terrifying penultimate act, just before he walks into a shroud of white light, is still executed with restraint and deliberation. But this is Hoffman’s picture. Lumet has said that he offered either one of the brother roles to Hoffman and just hoped that the other actor he cast didn’t want the same part. Hoffman’s Andy acts disgracefully through the entire story and you’re right there with him the entire time hoping that he somehow pulls his head out of his ass and survives. But this is a story about doom and it’s true to its characters. And if you can stomach the downward spiral that all the characters are on, you’ll have seen some wonderful actors in the prime of their career.
Photos top to bottom:
From left: Ethan Hawke as Hank and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Andy;Marisa Tomei as Gina;
From left: Philip Seymour Hoffman as Andy and Ethan Hawke as Hank
All photos: ThinkFilm