By Ray Pride
What’s the old saying? Keep your enemies closer but fuck your brother in the ass?
Actually, the more modest old saying that applies to Sidney Lumet’s masterful thriller contains its title: “May you be in heaven a half hour ‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.'” A lot of swoon-derful prose has been applied to this dark delight, a trim, fierce, modestly budgeted movie, shot on high-definition video with multiple cameras, and man, it almost feels wrong to add to it. This is a wowser, a marvel and a gem. When Lumet’s fortieth or so feature in a fifty-year career of terrible lows but tremendous highs premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, it was darker than a dark horse, it was a dark horse in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. And yet, at 83, Lumet (working from a first-time script by playwright Kelly Anderson) fractures time, charts double-crosses and breaks bones with all the alacrity of a much younger man. My favorite moment in a Lumet interview on this go-round is one where he’s asked about the tone of the movie. “Network,” surely no one would ever make a film darker than “Network,” the interlocutor asks. “How does it feel to have made something much darker?” “It feels terrrrrific!” Lumet answers, grinning the well-earned grin of a lifetime lived well.
And it does. There are at least a half-dozen factors a movie might have for me to be tempted into calling it a masterpiece, and most of them are here: a relentless story told with force and assurance, hewing to primal archetypes of family and fate; economy of means; elegance of composition; a sense of time and place that is immediately coherent and memorable; a bracing sense of humor; and ultimately, a belief that existence is a sum greater than all the petty crimes and spoiled ambitions most moviegoers harbor beyond the glow of the movie screen. “Devil” is a fantastically sinister thriller with a twining, fucked-up family plot that would be great even if Lumet didn’t make it.
I’d read a little about the story before seeing the movie, yet was consistently surprised by the force and glee in every facet of the ever-tightening vise upon the characters. Some of the reversals are immediately apparent; some I’ll have to mention for any summary to make sense. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play brothers, Andy and Hank. They’re both strung out and strung along by their bad habits and dirty secrets, and when Andy proposes the holdup of a simple family-owned jewelry store in Westchester, New York, things are set in motion.
We know within a few minutes that a conflagration of epic proportions takes place, more myth than mere melodrama. This is a heist-gone-wrong movie that may in fact surpass the substantial achievement of Lumet’s “Dog Day Afternoon.” Leaping vertiginously across the narrative’s intricate timeline, the effect offered by Lumet and Masterson is a bit of a stutter at each transition, moving slightly backward or slightly forward yet, always, we remain in one place: present tension. Film unfolds in a persistent now, however we parse the story’s intentions. Flopsweat has seldom been so entrancing. (The contemporary, drums-and-bass-ish score serves well as the film’s own heartbeat or ticking clock.)
Marisa Tomei plays Gina, Andy’s wife, and the nakedness of these three performers, literally and emotionally, makes for a bravura show throughout. There are other performances to esteem in Tomei’s career, such as “Unhook the Stars,” but anyone who sees “Before the Devil…” and says this woman is not a fine, forceful actress is willfully blind or mean. Lumet is also aware of how contrasting the eye-poppingly beautiful Tomei changes the way we look at the more-dowdy-than-usual Hoffman and champion scruff-bucket Hawke.
A lot of filmmakers I’ve interviewed this year keep harking back to Lumet’s command of performance and the unfussy, telling frame for his storytelling, and if they’re all going to be taking the lessons they learned from “Serpico” and “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Prince of the City,” and now, “The Devil,” we could see some tremendous movies in the next couple years. That is if there’s German financing and a European completion bond and hungry actors and great scripts and avid distributors like small, Canadian-owned thinkFILM. The factors of greatness are balanced against any and all films that go into production, but this savage, gleaming, brilliant little fucker reminds you why it’s all worthwhile.
“Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead” opens Friday.