[117 minutes. R. Director: Sidney Lumet]
Hollywood loves “family” as an income generator, but hates it as a theme and institution.
And for good reason. It’s much more palatable to potential ticket buyers if the family is treated as an abstract concept with no basis in reality. The highs and lows of having parents and siblings is mandatory, but the fact remains: family is a thing of permanence, and few films deal with the nuts and bolts of love, guilt, responsibility, and madness that informs most (which is why we have the acceptably quirky dysfunction of the Griswolds and Fockers).
What could be “worse” than a piece of art that forces us to confront the fact that the family unit is often rooted in apprehension and fear?
This is why Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is so refreshing: it may be steeped in its own kind of pulp exaggeration, but the interlocking plot and performances present a reality that’s just convincing enough to be plausible. It’s a film where Albert Finney is a credible and convincing father to brothers Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke; while they may not look related, their interactions, conflicts, and resentments convince the viewer otherwise.
Devil is a blue-collar crime flick grounded in the doldrums of working-class malaise. Not surprisingly, financial desperation is the name of the criminal game. Andy (Hoffman), who works in the payroll department of a real estate firm, wants to escape to Brazil with his wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei). Andy’s brother Hank (Hawke) works in the same office, but is in financial dire straits (he owes back child support), and carrying on a secret affair with Gina. Their father, Charles (Finney), owns the family jewelry store with wife Nanette (Rosemary Harris). Andy brings Hank in on a plot to solve their money problems – by robbing the store.
While cut and dry in synopsis, the robbery comprises only a small part of the film; director Sidney Lumet (who knows his way around great ensemble casts) is far more interested in the trickle-down effect of its moral fallout.
Kelly Masterson’s script is structured via multiple perspectives – Andy, Hank, and Charles – and where they intersect and overlap. It’s a gimmick that recalls Pulp Fiction and Memento, but isn’t simply style for style’s sake: Lumet uses it to tease out information and withhold plot or character beats until the absolute necessity of their reveal. While disorienting at first, this approach unravels a deceptively simple heist plot with unexpected depth.
The tricky brilliance of the writing and performances is that each character is working within the same tangled, incestuous web: Andy’s dubious bookkeeping as the IRS audits the firm; Hank’s relationship with Gina; Gina’s relationship with Andy and Hank; and Charles’s responsibility for his children when the details of the robbery come to light. Nobody is in an enviable position, and that conveys the soul-swallowing darkness that earns the film’s valid categorization as Noir.
Lumet’s aesthetic touches are wonderfully subtle: an antiseptic look in the cold exteriors of modern high-rises, with indoor colors desaturated just enough to amplify the slickness of transparent glass surfaces (while also accentuating shadowy corners); conversely, the image is periodically overexposed to heighten the drama (the quick-cut reaction shots of Hank as the robbery occurs). Early on, the rental car used to carry out the crime is glaring white on a highway clogged with darker-colored vehicles, unconsciously drawing attention to itself. And details like wardrobe and hairstyle (Hank’s disheveled, loose look; Andy’s fitted suits and slicked-back hair) accentuate the characters’ sense of control (or lack thereof).
The family dynamics of Devil are spot on. Charles is presented as a cold patriarch, Hank is emasculated by everyone around him (repeatedly called “the baby” by his dad, and “faggot” by his brother and peers; hell, his own daughter even calls him a loser when he doesn’t come through on the funds for a pricey field trip), and Andy is left to shoulder the burden once the robbery goes South. The film is most interested in its male characters, with Nanette dispatched in the opening minutes, and sister Katherine (Arija Bareikis) left in the margins. Tomei imbues Gina with her own emotional and financial conflicts, but remains outside the most severe consequences of Andy and Hank’s actions.
Perhaps Lumet and Masterson are suggesting that, when left to their own devices, men will royally fuck things up.
See also: Reservoir Dogs, The Usual Suspects, and just about any crime thriller to come out of the 1990s.
8 out of 10 stars