After at least a decade, if not much more, of lackluster films from Sidney Lumet, the fading titan has strikingly returned to form with a fiery, blustering crash. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is easily the best-acted film of the year, but what’s more is that it’s a sharp piece of cultural criticism about late capitalism and the depths of tragedy it’s capable of producing.
Nearly three-quarters of the way into the film, Marisa Tomei asks her husband, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, for car fare to her mother’s house; “I could really use some money,” she says, and she might as well be speaking for every character in the film. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is about money, pure and anything but simple: its role as America’s driving force, main object of desire and the one thing of which no one seems to have enough.
Hoffman is introduced in a position of dominance, retrocopulating with his wife Tomei (it’s surprisingly graphic, despite being filmed in a non-revealing long shot), a dominance he’ll resume, though not in a porously-penetrative way, throughout the rest of the film in regards to his little brother, played by Ethan Hawke. Hoffman pushes him into a robbery he doesn’t want, nor have the brains, to commit but both, to their undoing, are in desperate need of the cash they assure themselves that they’ll score. (And Hoffman, the cokeheaded corporate exec, is too much the coward to do it himself.)
Hoffman is obsessed with the pathetically unrealistic idea that if only he could get he and his wife back to Rio, where they spent the opening scene in giggly, orgasmic bliss, they could solve all of their marital (er, sexual) woes. “I need money,” Hoffman says, “I want to start over again.” Meanwhile, Hawke is in debt to just about everyone he knows and not only can’t he pay his child support, he can’t even afford to follow through on his promise to his daughter to send her on a field trip to see The Lion King on Broadway, humiliating her with his poverty in front of her entire grade-school class.
United, then, by a shared indigence, Hoffman enlists Hawke to rob a Westchester jewelry store, a mom-and-pop operation in the most literal sense, as their parents own and operate it. This is the sort of premise that comic films are made of, but Lumet and screenwriter Masterson play it straight. (They take a moment to laugh only once, at a mildly ridiculous costume that Hawke dawns on the day of the robbery; Lumet seems prone to finding comedy in costumes, as the only other time I can recall him making a successfully funny joke was when Al Pacino showed up in Serpico absurdly dressed, for no specified reason, as a hasidic Jew.)
Hawke is initially uncomfortable with the idea of knocking off his parents’ joint, making excuses to his domineering big brother. “I got a kid,” he whines. “You got shit,” Hoffman counters, correctly. That oppressive need for dough that the brothers share sets into a motion a tragedy that, like its characters debts and obligations, builds and builds until each player in the tragedy is left shattered. It’s just one harrowing thing piling on top of another, until the pile’s too deep to be dug out from under, Lumet suffocating the characters and audience alike.
No one does straight formal filmmaking—not to mention direct actors at an Elia Kazan-level—like Sidney Lumet. (Pronounced Luh-mett, by the way; as Foster Hirsch says, “he’s not French, he’s a Jewish kid from Brooklyn!”) Having gotten personal flair out of his system as early as 1964 with The Pawnbroker, Lumet, in his directness and faithfulness to his source material, is a screenwriter’s best friend. Having come from television and the theater, Lumet comes to cinema with the old-fashioned idea of the text as king. Disregarding a few editing flourishes that take us through the film’s jumbled temporal structure, Lumet’s style is the epitome of directorial restraint.
Though that’s not to say that he’s pejoratively “by the books,” just a director in total control and, at his best, comfortable enough with his own talents and story to avoid making any misguided attempts at overextension. (Though it should be noted that despite his capacity for mastery he’s had more, much more, than his fair share of clunkers.) An extended long take of Hoffman unfastening his shirt’s buttons and fixing himself a drink is a testament to Lumet’s brilliant filmmaking patience, while the Looney Tunes short playing on the television in the background is a nice touch, suggesting the silliness and cartoonishness of Hoffman and his big robbery plans.
But Lumet never lets the film descend into the zany—thankfully, as the director barely has a funny bone in his body—keeping it soaked instead in hard-boiled, absurdly depressing high-cynicism. The story moves back and forth through time, switching points of view using the robbery as its center; the crime itself, which of course goes horribly awry, begins the film and serves both as a repeated point of return or departure for the various narrative strands. I understand that the technique is meant to underscore the characters’ detachment from one another—the filmmakers refuse to even let their narratives proceed together!—but the gimmicky structure detracts a bit from the film’s central narrative thrust; as the story winds down, though, and the characters become more and more tied up in one another, the filmmakers allow the competing strains to integrate. In its last act, the characters, united, place a period at the end of the grim parable.
At the film’s heart are three clashing males: Hawke, as a man-in-debt way in over his head who can’t drink or steal his way out of it, gives his most impassioned and dynamic performance to date, certainly coaxed out of him by the masterful Lumet, while Hoffman is, at least at first, a bit more restrained, going from giggling through his role to becoming a man gone mad, having entirely fallen apart. Both actors are phenomenal, but trumping them all is Albert Finney, channeling the spirit of Peter Finch (who got himself an Oscar thanks to Lumet), as the boys’ father. Hoffman maintains control over his dimwitted little brother, but Finney controls them both; as his character of the weepy and angry old father dominates his sniveling children, so too does Finney dominate the film. From all sides, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is full, in bursts, of loud, conspicuous emotions as the dramatic intensity unceasingly increases. But those emotions never ring false or stink of misguided overacting; they maintain a startling level of emotional genuineness, the performances unsettlingly naturalistic.
Though Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead presents an America totally fucked by debt, it still maintains that crime doesn’t pay. Crime is just about the worst route, in fact, in this punishing, unforgiving film without the faintest glimmer of hope or moral direction in which every plot point is another crank of the vise around the audience’s throats. “The world is an evil place,” a jewel-fencer says, declaring the film’s theme. “Some of us make money off it, others get destroyed.” So you might as well swallow a bottle of pills now and get it over with. In his cranky cynicism, but not in the freshness of his direction, Lumet is showing his age.