Sunday, October 28, 2007

Three Angry Men: Sidney Lumet's Fast and Furious Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

(Sidney Lumet, US, 2007, 116 minutes)  

Don't call it a comeback / I've been here for years.
-- LL Cool J, "Mama Said Knock You Out" (1990)

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Before he was a film director, Sidney Lumet was a television director. Before he was a TV director, Lumet was a theater director. After watching Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, it occurred to me that the entire cast had trod the boards. The list includes those best known for their silver screen work, like Marisa Tomei and Ethan Hawke, whose theater-directing debut just opened off-Broadway. But look closer, and you'll find actors who've enjoyed their biggest successes on the stage, like Tony Award winner Brían F. O'Byrne and Michael Shannon (both theater and film versions of Bug). 

It's not that Lumet's 44th feature is stagy, though the two-person-in-a-room scenes are among the best. It's that the melodrama merges two of his favored genres: the crime caper and the family tragedy. As he puts it in the press notes, "In a well-written drama, the story comes out of the characters, and in a well-written melodrama, the characters come out of the story." 

When I think about Lumet and the family tragedy, I flash back to his 1962 version of Eugene O'Neill's Long Days Journey into Night, which I own on video. More so than the police pictures and corruption classics of the 1970s (Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, and Network), Before the Devil Knows You're Dead evokes O'Neill, Shakespeare, Chekhov--Lumet once directed a version of Chekhov's The Seagull--and even a few of those Greek guys. 

If you've seen the trailer (embedded below), you've got the gist of the thing, except that it emphasizes the criminal aspects of playwright Kelly Masterson's debut screenplay, possibly because the family dynamics are too complicated to summarize in 60 seconds. In short, Hank (Hawke) and Andy Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are New York-based brothers living beyond their means--yes, Masterson will allude to their not inconsiderable physical dissimilarity before this fractured fairy tale is through. 

Blue-collar Hank can barely keep up with the child support payments to his ex-wife, Martha (Amy Ryan, almost as feisty here as in Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone, where she incinerates the screen), while real estate broker Andy makes more money, but as a heroin and cocaine user--shades of Katharine Hepburn's morphine-addicted matriarch in O'Neill's autobiographical masterpiece--he's having a harder time of it. And that's just scratching the surface. Hank is also having an affair with Andy's wife, Gina (the frequently topless Tomei), and neither man is particularly close to their father, Charles (Albert Finney, from Lumet's 1974 Murder on the Orient Express). 

These relationships may be strained, but Andy's bright idea about how to secure a financial windfall will bring long-simmering tensions to a full boil. Charles and their mother, Nanette (an effective, if underused Rosemary Harris), run a suburban strip-mall jewelry store. To their father's disappointment, his sons chose not to join the mom and pop operation. But at least it's insured, so Andy talks Hank into robbing the joint and fencing the gems for some quick cash. It is, as he spins it, "a victimless crime." 

The plan is for Hank, wearing a disguise--he looks like The King of Comedy's Rupert Pupkin--to enter the shop while the afternoon clerk is manning the counter. Without telling his brother, Hank decides to drive the getaway car, roping in his friend, Bobby (O'Byrne), to handle the hold-up. Suffice to say, their plan falls apart the minute the unstable Bobby walks in the door. Everything that can go wrong, does. The only "good" thing is that Charles, at first, has no idea his sons were involved with the robbery. 

From that point forward, Lumet concentrates on the rapidly unraveling psyches of his central trio (Tomei and Harris are fine, but the story isn't really about them). Before the crime, the three were able to treat each other with some degree of civility. After all hell has broken loose, they can no longer disguise their true feelings for each other. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is an actor's paradise, and Hawke, Hoffman, and Finney rise to the occasion. Then there's Michael Shannon, as Bobby's brother-in-law, Dex. It's a small role, but Shannon makes one hell of a hilariously menacing impact. So much so that I predict big--or at least interesting--things for the blue-eyed lug. 

It's too soon to say whether the film will represent Lumet's comeback. He never went away, and his previous picture, 2006's Find Me Guilty, attracted respectable notices, but it's been ages since he's had a hit. Since younger audiences may not be familiar with his work, the actors will have to serve as the primary attraction. Fortunately, this is his starriest cast in ages--two Oscar winners, Hoffman and Tomei, and six Oscar nominations shared between Finney and Hawke. The good reviews should also help.  

Further, Lumet may be 83, but this hi-def enthusiast is no more stuck in the past than European compatriots Jacques Rivette (79), Alain Resnais (85), Eric Rohmer (87), and Manoel de Oliveira, who turns 99 in December. 

In the press notes, Finney states, "I worked with him 32 years ago. He shoots just as fast now as he did then. He's still the same." At the very least, the film proves Lumet has learned from the mistakes that marred his 1990s output. First of all, he tends to do his best work with classically-trained actors, like Henry Fonda, Peter Finch, and Al Pacino (about whom he says, "Yes, Al Pacino challenges you. But only to make you more honest, to make you probe deeper. You're a better director for having worked with him"). And not movie stars, like Sharon Stone, from his ill-fated and highly unnecessary 1999 John Cassavetes remake Gloria, or Melanie Griffith, from his much-maligned 1992 diamond district thriller A Stranger Among Us

Also, as Lumet acknowledges in 1995's Making Movies, an essential read for anyone interested in American cinema, "I've done two movies because I needed the money." I doubt his most recent one falls into that category, though he adds, "Because I'm a professional, I worked as hard on those movies as on any I've ever done." (I don't recall that he named the films.)

Fortunately, Lumet's hard work has paid off this time around--the title comes from the Irish toast, "May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you're dead"--and he's currently at work on his 45th feature in 50 years. As writer/director David Mamet, who penned the screenplay for 1982's The Verdict, succinctly sums it up, "Sidney is the maestro." 

I'm gonna take this itty bitty world by storm / and I'm just gettin' warm. 
--LL Cool J 


Before the Devil Knows You're Dead opens at the Egyptian Theater on Nov 2. Images from MUBI (Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman), the IMDb (Albert Finney, Hawke with Amy Ryan, and Hawke with Michael Shannon and Aleksa Palladino), and Film at Lincoln Center (Sidney Lumet).      

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