Crime Hits Way Too Close To Home In This Taut Crime Drama From Sidney Lumet
Whenever a movie begins with a wide-screen view of Philip Seymour Hoffman's ass, there's a director behind the camera who doesn't take orders. Sidney Lumet has earned that right over a prolific 50-year career that has included acknowledged masterpieces (Twelve Angry Men, Network) peppered with the less-than-memorable (The Wiz). At 83, even after a string of commercial bombs, Lumet isn't ready to rest on his laurels. In Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, he's as much of a gambler as his characters are and, unlike them, he comes out ahead.
So we begin by watching Andy (Hoffman) looking at himself in the mirror in a chintzy Brazilian hotel while shagging his sexy-but-airheaded wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei). That alone should indicate that something's a little off. It's the first good sex this couple has had in years, but, as Andy flops down and starts the pillow talk, it becomes clear that it's probably the last. So they begin to talk about staying in Brazil for good.
That's familiar territory for Lumet, who's always had an attraction for doomed bunglers desperately searching for a fool's paradise. Thirty years ago, his Dog Day Afternoon followed two small-time slackers who wind up in deep shit after screwing up a bank robbery. Here, as in Dog Day, the train wreck occurs a few minutes after the opening credits, with a bungled robbery. Unlike Dog Day, Devil loses its comic potential fast. A hired hood (Brian O'Byrne)--paid by Andy and his brother Hank (Ethan Hawke)--heads into a mom-and-pop jewelry store with a sock over his head, as Hank waits outside with a getaway car. The clerk, a woman in her 60s (Rosemary Harris)--grabs a gun and shoots the intruder as he fishes through the shelves. And as he lies bleeding on the floor, he shoots back.
Within the first five minutes, the clerk has been killed, the hired burglar has been killed, the police are on the way, jewelry is lying all over the floor, and the two financially strapped, thirtysomething brothers who engineered this are wondering what they're going to do. Not only are they accomplices to murder, but as we find out soon, the mom-and-pop jewelry store belongs to their mom and pop. Then we discover that, because of a last-minute schedule change, the woman behind the register was their mother. So they're responsible for the death of their mother. And their father (Albert Finney in a fascinating performance) is gradually ratcheting up his rage as he morphs from Scrabble-playing senior citizen into a relentless angel of vengeance.
It's a claustrophobic nightmare for the brothers, but for Lumet, it's prime real estate. From then on, the director's noose tightens inexorably around the two brothers' necks, and he appears to enjoy every minute of it. The more they struggle for a way out, the more deeply they mire themselves in a world of drug dealers, murders, and small-time hoods. By the end of the movie, they're in the eighth or ninth circle of hell. And as the brothers' world unravels, Lumet, meanwhile, flashes back and forward around the initial five minutes, and then returns to the crime from competing perspectives. Each shift is marked with a strange sound, like prison doors slamming shut, one after the other. For a director who isn't known for fiddling around with the camera, he uses the Rashomon effect like a master, circling around the movie's formative moments with an almost paranoid attention to detail.
All this high-tech editing would go to naught, however, if it wasn't for Lumet's primary talent: squeezing unforgettable performances out of his actors. As Lumet's camera relentlessly tracks his face--oleaginous, deceptive, brimming with false confidence and deep insecurity--Hoffman slips easily into the role of slimy older brother Andy. That mug hasn't gotten him far in business or in love. There's only one person in the world that combination works with, and it's Hank, who is cuter, skinnier, and putty in his brother's hands. The uneasy, dominant-submissive dance going on between these two gets weirder and weirder as they spiral into disaster. As Hank sits in his brother's office, or in a bar, listening to his brother's plans, his eyes are magnetically riveted on Andy's. At the same time, he's desperately looking for an escape. Hawke might not be the obvious choice for a psychodrama, but Lumet has prompted an almost luminescent, passive-aggressive wimpiness out of him as he tries to wiggle out from his brother's shadow.
At first, it looks like Lumet has dropped his usual social commentary. The disastrous opening is an excuse for Lumet to peel away layers of betrayal, but it has roots in a familiar problem: two brothers desperately trying to balance their checkbooks. With relentless, Dostoevskian determination, Lumet keeps burrowing deeper into the core of middle-class instability. You may leave feeling a little drained, but you'll also know you've been taken there by a master.