Director: Sidney Lumet
By Roderick Heath
For the past half-century, Sidney Lumet has been modern American cinema’s master of fine-grained mise-en-scène. His sense of life being lived, particularly in big cities, is often unerring, and thus, his touch has always been at its surest in urban dramas and noir films. His recent career Oscar and the ensuing tide of reevaluation has brought him to the brink of the recognition he deserves, but he’s still patronised to a surprising degree. Perhaps it’s the fact that Lumet insisted on having an old Hollywood hand’s type of career, taking on diverse projects for the sheer hell of it, and working steadily through creative barren patches, that’s diluted his appreciation. He is also, to a certain extent, a filmmaker at odds with much of the popular conception of great directors. He’s rarely flamboyant, technically showy, or self-important. He generally uses only the bare minimum of shots he needs to explain a point, and if something can be done in one long take, he’ll shoot it that way.
Lumet began as an expert adaptor of stage works, and yet he grew swiftly out of theatrical transcription. His movies are distinguished by their lean, actor-centric, matter-of-fact sensibility, and yet they’re always slightly more stylised than you think, with his imaginative use of lenses to emphasise altering perspectives, used most showily in films like Murder on the Orient Express (1975). In this tendency to ever so slightly magnify the ordinary, Lumet achieves something very much like classic American naturalism as defined by Twain, Norris, and Crane. In terms of modern cinema, Lumet is closer not to high-style contemporaries like Kubrick and Frankenheimer, but to Ken Loach and British-style realists.
Lumet’s career is studded with forgettable films that did not mesh with his fundamental gifts, like The Wiz (1978), The Group (1966), as well as with the overrated Network (1976). Yet, his roll of honour represents some of the most rigorous, tough, and intelligent works of American (and British) film: Twelve Angry Men, The Fugitive Kind, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Fail-Safe, The Pawnbroker, The Hill, The Offence, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Prince of the City, The Verdict, Daniel, and Running on Empty. The ’90s were largely a sorry time for Lumet, apart from some interesting misfires like Q&A and Night Falls on Manhattan, which were all the more sad for fumbling to recapture old greatness.
Working from a script by debut screenwriter Kelly Masterson, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is easily Lumet’s best film since Running on Empty, a welcome return to the dark-saturated, tragic melodrama of his great works. It’s the tale of Hank (Ethan Hawke) and Andy Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman), two sharply defined brothers who decide to knock over their parents’ jewelry store to extricate themselves from financial woes. Hank hires a sleazy stick-up man, Bobby (Brian F. O’Byrne), who gets himself shot by the brothers’ own mother, Nanette (Rosemary Harris), but shoots her, too, before expiring. Unsurprisingly, it’s all downhill from there.
This film is, assuredly, a melodrama. Plot complications stack up with extraneous relentlessness, and most of the characters are defined by a single dominating trait. Yet Lumet and his cast endeavor to bring to the film a Grecian weight with a pared-back, intensive technique, and succeed; the tale and its moral conclusions are blacker than the Earl of Hell’s waistcoat. Lumet lays out the details of these men and their lives like an assassin laying out the parts of his rifle before assembling it—and then proceeds to shoot them dead with it. The film’s biting thesis contrasts self-conscious “loser” Hank with his brother, whose hot wife and higher position in the real estate company they both work for make him apparently more successful, but who is actually an even bigger loser. His debts are larger, his failures broader—how much more he has gained only adds up to how much more he has to lose.
Then there’s grizzled patriarch Charles (Albert Finney), who is confronted first by terrible loss and then an even more terrible discovery that does not dissuade him from pursuing vengeance. Charles is both cheering and chilling in his dedication to restoring a fundamental sense of order to the world once his has been smashed, even to the point of murdering one of his own boys. Before he learns the truth, Charles attempts to apologise for his failings as a father, and Andy attempts to displace his own failings willingly onto his father. But something infinitely malignant, glittering in the dark, has grown between this pair, and becomes pure toxicity when combined with social values and personal desperation that drive a man to seek money at all costs. The main victim is Andy and Hank’s own mother—Harris is an actress who mysteriously manages to become more beautiful every year—who, ironically, displays a level of bravery and pith that gets her killed, but also brings everything else crashing down. All deceits and betrayals are laid bare because she is present where she shouldn’t be, and does what she should not. The old woman who counts for nothing in this drama of masculine fear and rage is actually its catalytic force. Aeschylus would have been happy with the building blocks of this story.
Lumet’s film has some close cousins in contemporary cinema, for example, the recent works of James Gray and Clint Eastwood, in attempting to artfully reproduce the compulsive plot patterns and analytical stereotyping of classic Hollywood melodrama in order to exploit their potential for corrosive social critique. Lumet surpasses these directors in both his refusal to indulge actors and his immunity from sentimentality. Hoffman and Hawke, two thespians prone to showboating, are kept on the strictest of leashes. The reward is some dazzling performing, like the way Hoffman shivers and stutters when he converses with Andy on the phone and realises everything’s gone to hell. Hawke gives his best-ever performance, free of the hipster archness he never before disposed of entirely. Finney continues his incredible late-career resurgence. It’s mesmerising to watch these characters engage in realistic, offhand behavior, like the way both Hawke and Hoffman reveal underneath their attempts to fit into a white-collar world, a fundamental working-class unease—the moment they relax, they pull their shirts out of their trousers. There’s also an eye-catching part from veteran character actor Leonardo Cimino as a hellish minion in the guise of a diamond merchant, all too eager to inform Charles just how evil the world can be.
The film isn’t a true, profound tragedy. It states, rather than explores, the dynamics of the family that’s produced this situation, and the various character relationships are locked in the state they continue in, if more urgently, to the climax. We’re not introduced to the whole Hanson clan together, and so gain little feel for how they work as a unit. Andy outlines his alienation from the group dynamic of mother, father, sister and brother, and Hank has long settled into seething mutual contempt with his ex-wife (Amy Ryan) and daughter (Sarah Livingstone).
The role of Gina (Marisa Tomei), Andy’s gorgeous wife, is curious, and ultimately fudged. The film begins with her and Andy in a moment of pure carnal thrill, a marker, reminiscent as it is of Jaime Sanchez and his girlfriend cavorting in The Pawnbroker, of Lumet’s career-long fascination with the brittle excitement and intimacy of the casual lover’s shag. It’s a kind of twilight idyll for them that Andy attempts desperately to maintain, despite the fact that his coke and heroin habits have been rendering him intermittently impotent. Gina mistakes this for lack of desire for her, so she’s been regularly bedding Hank instead. Yet Gina never develops beyond a plot trope, and Tomei is left floundering like an offended valley girl when she finally abandons Andy, a desultory conclusion for an aspect of the story that begins so vividly.
The story of Before the Devil is essentially retrospective, in that it deals with consequences to interpersonal disaster that have preordained worldly disaster. This justifies the film’s approach, which continues circling around the robbery and its grim conclusion, following each character on their separate descent; it’s as if time has stopped, and fate throws up its labyrinthine barriers at every turn. Hank and Andy are wonderfully half-assed criminals. It would take a kind of existential resignation such as James Caan displays in Michael Mann’s Thief (1981) to escape it, but neither Hank nor Andy have the kind of strength required to either avoid or extricate themselves from this situation. Andy comes close, in a final ruthless drive, but his last hesitation and swerving from his purpose to cosset his wounded pride, costs him his life.
Hank survives, at the price of having to run for the rest of his life because of a remaining scruple—he won’t let Andy shoot an innocent woman, and she returns the favor. Ultimately, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is not entirely pessimistic, in that the “right” values do prevail, but Hank’s act of selflessness and Charles’s final act prove that whilst justice can still rule even in the cruelest situations, it can still entail facing the near- inconceivable horror of being exterminated by a loved one, and thus be only one more cruelty.