Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead opens with one hell of a flourish. No sooner have the lights gone down than you’re greeted with the spectacle of Philip Seymour Hoffman vigorously fucking Marisa Tomei from behind. Hoffman is watching the coupling in a floor-to-ceiling mirror; the effect is not much less sordid than the similar scene in American Psycho. (Tomei goes on to, essentially, spend her screen time in the next few reels of the film topless — with the sudden arrival of this, Feast of Love, American Gangster, Into the Wild and In the Valley of Elah, not to mention the towel-free shenanigans of Viggo Mortenson in Eastern Promises, it looks like I picked the wrong year to start complaining about a lack of nudity on the part of Hollywood movies.) Their furious, awkward rutting behavior is sort of a metaphor for the whole film, which is about a certain animalistic low-mindedness and love of money — behavior that stinks like a rotting carcass. After a first-reel heist-gone-wrong sequence, the action rachets down somewhat, but much blood (along with some other bodily fluids) will be spilled once the film starts cranking again toward its Shakespearean conclusion.
Ladies and gentlemen, Sidney Lumet has entered the building, and he wants you to know he’s still a badass.
That sensation is pleasurable in itself. You can feel the ruefulness and moral gravity in the director’s hand, and it’s enjoyable to see an 83-year-old director bringing on the sex, drugs and ultraviolence with occasional ferocity. The more lurid this material gets, the more entertaining it is to watch. The failure is, it’s fundamentally a pulpy melodrama that strives toward an intended emotional resonance that it never achieves. And too much of the material that’s meant to generate meaning in the interregnums between the sensational stuff is just dull, with character types that aren’t fleshed out, plot points that are too familiar from any number of crime movies, and a family dynamic that could be lifted from any given father-son relationship melodrama. This machine repeatedly threatens to rev up, but mostly just keeps slipping out of gear.
A big problem is that the screenplay — a straightforward story of crime and unforeseen punishments — has been juiced up as a nonlinear narrative. It begins with the disastrous jewelry-store robbery that really sets events in motion for Andy (Hoffman) and his brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) before moving freely backward and forward in time, setting flashbacks inside of flashbacks and altering chronology to add ersatz gravity to what seem like surprisingly superficial mysteries. That these sudden time-shifts are formally signaled by flashy, student-film level transitions complete with fast cuts, digital zooms, and obnoxious sound effects only compound the frustration I felt every time they knocked the film’s narrative momentum back down to zero. If Lumet and screenwriter Kelly Masterson thought the narrative jumble would help make the identity of the robbery victims a surprise later in the film, he blows the reveal early on by clumsily introducing a big brown UPS truck that not only dominates the frame but also serves no conceivable function but to block Hank’s view at the critical moment. And the money problems that drive both Andy and Hank into a series of stupid decisions are highlighted early on, no matter how you structure the narrative.
So I can’t imagine the movie wouldn’t benefit from jettisoning the annoying parlor tricks and telling the story chronologically, because there is no obvious instance where tension is increased by withholding information. And the digital cinematography here doesn’t allow much visual shading — the images (shot in HD with Panavision’s Genesis camera system) look a lot like video, with digital artifacts (aliasing, a little rainbow fringing, a weird kind of shimmering effect on one of Hoffman’s ties) scattered through some of the shots and a certain dinginess prevailing. Granted, dingy describes the intended mood — but this feels a little cheap.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Written by Kelly Masterson
Cinematography by Ron Fortunato
Edited by Tom Swartout
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney and Marisa Tomei
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Screened 11/5/07 at Jacob Burns Film Center, Pleasantville, NY