May 14, 2008

Movies for Grown-Ups: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)
Written by Kelly Masterson
Directed by Sidney Lumet

There's a grand irony about being an artist that we all know but rarely acknowledge; that at the same time that artist grows as a human into a deep maturity in their later years, most of their actual creative well ends up running dry, with most artists throughout human history usually peaking creatively between their thirties and fifties. And that's why it's always such a difficult thing to critically appraise the late-career work of older artists, because even as you wish to praise them for the overall contribution they've made to the arts, you still must acknowledge that that particular project usually is not very good at all unto itself. It's the number-one reason, after all, that so many awards get handed out to such artists for such pieces of crap at this point in their careers; not because the piece-of-crap projects deserved those awards, but that the artist themselves did much earlier in life, and now is the only chance left to actually give them the accolades they deserve.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Such could've easily been the case, for example, with Hollywood legend Sidney Lumet -- he whose directing career stretches all the way back to the 1940s (with television's old "Studio One"), he of such brainy early-career hits as 12 Angry Men and Long Day's Journey Into Night, he of such brilliant 1970s masterpieces as Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Equus, and a lot more. Lumet's been continuing to regularly crank out work since his last bonafide big hit, 1982 Paul Newman vehicle The Verdict, but with no real big culture-changers like the most notorious of his films, and it'd be easy (and usually correct) to assume that any new movies he puts out anymore will be only middling to TV-worthy at best; but then bam, at the sweet freaking age of 83 last year, he puts out the tight, dark, and highly entertaining Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, eventually racking up 16 award nominations (including five wins) from around the industry, and a newfound retrospective interest in all his older work as well. And indeed, now that I've seen it myself, I can safely call the movie the product of Lumet working at, say, 85-percent of his full brilliant capacity, a standard noir that certainly works and works well but that is nothing too terribly special; in other words, a bit of a disappointment if he had made it in the '70s, but astonishing now, given that many of his peers are cranky obese invalids who can barely even sit through such movies, much less make them.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

In fact, to understand Lumet's entire career in a nutshell, it's wise to pay attention to the DVD extras on display here, and listen to what person after person in this production has to say about him -- that he is a sincere believer and fan of the literary format known as "melodrama," and believes that the term got an unfair shake in the 20th century. After all, as he himself explains in the making-of documentary, melodrama is nothing more than the usual drama but oomphed up a little; the usual Big Issues that all of us humans grapple with, just a little more exciting or intense for the sake of dramatic entertainment. When mentioned this way, you can suddenly see a very clear running theme throughout all of Lumet's best work mentioned above, and it's certainly something to be applied to Devil as well; an inventive contemporary noir precisely because it takes place in such bland surroundings, the movie stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke (both delectably great here) as loser brothers in a suburb of New York, whose inept attempts at realizing their sad small dreams eventually result in mass carnage and psychic damage to the entire family in general.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

In fact, just the setting of this movie brings up something worth talking about; because the fact is that just a few days ago here at CCLaP, I went off on a novel for being set in a similar milieu, within a drab northeast suburb among meek middle-class losers with petty dreams and minimal education. So what's the difference? Well, to me, the difference is this -- that in Devil (and indeed, most noirs), these bland uneducated losers are at least yearning for something grand, at least pining for a huge success or at least one big payoff, just that their own moral weaknesses always hold them back; in books like the one I was complaining about the other day, such characters never attempt anything great in the first place, instead merely accepting their mediocre fate and then spending the rest of their life whining and bitching about it to anyone who will listen. That's what makes Devil so intriguing from the outset, in my opinion, despite it being set among drab strip malls and sad little corporate parks in the middle of nowhere; because one of the brothers is nonetheless dreaming of a life of drugs and whores in South America, the other dreaming of stability and a better life for his child, and thus are willing to take bigger and bigger chances when life otherwise keeps handing them turd platters.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

I'm not going to say too much else about the storyline, this being an inventive noir and all, but I'll say this since it's a pretty public part of the premise; that it is these unattainable yet sincere dreams of a better life that lead the brothers to cook up a heist scheme, and to have it take place at their parents' little suburban jewelry store for a whole host of reasons that seem good at the time -- because they know the layout, security and routines already, because neither of their parents will be there at the time of the robbery, because the parents' insurance will cover whatever is stolen. And this being a noir, of course, I think it's also safe for me to say that all of these plans go to hell when actually enacted, again for a variety of reasons -- because of these loser brothers not thinking ahead or planning for emergencies, because of a series of random coincidences, because of all of these characters' own natural weaknesses, their addictions and affairs and angry outbursts they seemingly can't control. And that's basically the film in a nutshell, without mentioning any of the interesting surprises or twists along the way; an unsettling look at one very screwed-up family, learning more and more about the simmering emotions under the surface with each passing minute of the movie itself.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

And like I said, it's pretty amazing how Lumet handles all this, precisely because it's unremarkable; in fact, when all is said and done, Devil is not much more than an unusually good film noir, one that will now join the ranks of the hundreds of others that have been made in the last 75 or so years. And this of course is always the danger of a well-done yet small film coming out in these Hollywood-Nadir days that we're living through, something I like to call the "Sideways Syndrome" -- that that film will receive more hype than it deserves, simply for not being the unwatchable crap that Hollywood usually churns out these days, and thus people go into it thinking it will be a Life-Changing Masterpiece and eventually leave disappointed. Devil is certainly no masterpiece, and in fact might not be for people at all if they're not naturally into mysteries and noirs; it does, however, display an almost perfect balance of character and plot, and is extremely well-done for what it aims to be. And like I said, for a man who was 83 when the film came out, we should be applauding the fact that the movie is even that; after all, those are things that even a lot of directors in their twenties and thirties fail at in Hollywood anymore.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

For those who like complex characters, dark stories, and a fair shake of sexual creepiness thrown in to boot, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is the one for you; it was a delightful surprise, to tell you the truth, given that I had been bracing myself for something not much better than a television movie.

Out of 10:
Writing: 9.2
Acting: 9.6
Directing: 8.6
Cinematography: 8.0
Overall: 9.0

Next on my queue list: "2007 Award Winners" week continues here tomorrow, with my review of the complex and elegant ethics drama Michael Clayton, an Oscar winner starring George Clooney and Tilda Swinton that was ZOMFG so freaking good I'm not sure where to even start.

Read even more about Before the Devil Knows You're Dead: Amazon | IMDb | Netflix | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:21 AM, May 14, 2008. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |