Tuesday, December 25, 2007
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (USA, 2007, Sidney Lumet)
Before the Devil Knows Your Dead sure sounds like a great idea, a neo-noir examination of the disintegration of the American Dream as filtered through the tragically dysfunctional relationships of a "typical" American family, with the added credibility of the hiring of wizened cinematic veteran Sidney Lumet to helm the project. Indeed, there is little doubt that the accoutrements are there for a fine noirish thriller. Firstly, we have the surprise casting of Marisa Tomei as the sexpot femme fatale with (with apologies to Teri Hatcher) spectactular breasts that she shows off with brazen aplomb throughout the film's opening act. Alas, breasts aside, Tomei does not really seem up to the challenge, with the frustrated grunt that signals her departure from the film mirroring the audience's response to her unconvincing performance. Secondly, we have the wonderfully claustrophic nature of the central plot device, a jewel heist devised by older brother Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and foisted upon a financially desperate younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) which relies upon an Oedipal twist that would make any Greek tragedian proud. Thirdly, in the remarkable performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman, we have a vivid and unforgettable portrait of a damaged and increasingly deranged character who in chasing his dreams lost hold of his ethical moorings.
So why is it that the film feels fractured and incomplete, much like Andy's character, who opines at one point that "all my parts don't add up"?
Part of the problem is the film's unwillingness to dig more deeply into the non-familial context of this tragedy. We catch glimpses of the work that Andy does, and have a few tantalizing hints about Hank's struggles to make ends meet, but these avenues of character exploration are given short shrift, with the focus instead being upon the brothers' lurid sexual triangle first, and their damaged relationship with the pater familias second. This reticence to dig into the character's social milieux is particularly strange given that this would normally be right in the wheelhouse of director Lumet, one of film's better social commentators. And while the staggered chronology forces the audience to pay a little closer attention to the juxtapositions of scenes set several days apart, it really doesn't contribute significantly to our understanding of this tale's inevitably grim conclusion, serving more as a self-conscious attempt to snazz up an otherwise pretty straight forward scenario.
The film is not without its rewards, primarly to be found in the terrific work of Hoffman, Hawke and Albert Finney to bring to life archetypal characters who feel like they stumbled out of a production of East of Eden meets Oedipus Rex. And it is great to see Lumet down in the muck and the mire, slogging through the filth, searching for the shiny gems in the mud. However, rather than a shiny diamone, this time he seems to have found himself a cut of zirconium.