Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Review - Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Sometimes a single piece of dialogue can speak for a whole movie, and in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead Philip Seymour Hoffman's line "I don't add up, I am not the sum of my parts" works as a neat summation of Sidney Lumet's lurid crime melodrama. The parts are all there – a fine collection of actors, a legendary director behind the camera, and a dependable old heist-gone-wrong narrative – but the finished product is strangely distancing and unsatisfying. Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play Andy and Hank respectively, two brothers up to their eyeballs in financial difficulty. Andy has been fiddling the books at work as he tries to provide for both his high-maintenance wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) and his own expensive drug habit, while Hank's troubles are more prosaic: he simply wants to pay for his daughter to attend a decent school and to stop giving his hectoring ex-wife (Amy Ryan) reasons to label him a loser.

Andy comes up with an answer to their prayers, a heist of their parents' jewellery store which should be a piece of cake as they know the store layout and the safe combinations, and their mother's elderly friend minds the shop on Saturday mornings. Of course, it doesn't quite run to plan, and the "victimless crime" Andy envisaged ends up claiming more and more victims as events rapidly slip out of the brothers' control. For a while, it's fun to watch, or at the very least intriguing, with screenwriter Kelly Masterson feeding us abstract pieces of information that only gradually fit together. Sidney Lumet has already given us the ultimate heist-gone-wrong film, with 1975's classic Dog Day Afternoon, and this picture never comes close to matching that masterpiece, but Lumet is good at handling the nuts and bolts of the narrative, and there's a surprising edge to his direction here. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead opens with the sight of Hoffman fucking Tomei from behind while admiring himself in the mirror – certainly one of the most startling introductions to a film in recent memory – and in the early stages, Lumet displays more vitality than any of his mundane recent films have offered. What a shame, then, that all of that vitality just seeps out of the picture about halfway through.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead's biggest flaw lies in its structure. Masterson has clearly set out to give us a complex, twist-laden story with her first screenplay, but her decision to hop back and forth in time hampers the film's development. At various points in the film, everything will suddenly come to a juddering halt before showing us how each character got to this point, and it often shows us the same incidents from a different character's point of view. As a result, the picture grows repetitive, inconsistent, and infuriating; and every time it seems as if Lumet is building some decent momentum or developing something compelling, the whole show just deflates, as Masterson's narrative takes two steps backwards. The fractured timeline is gradually emerging as the most overused filmmaking gimmick in the movies. It can work as a fine tension-builder when used sparingly, but these films often leave me wondering how the drama would have played out in linear fashion. Screenwriters might think it's clever to play with a film's chronology in this way, but there's nothing smarter than a good story told straight.

We're left with a handful of good scenes and few halfway-interesting ideas, but nothing is allowed to cohere. If anything does hold the picture together then it's Hoffman – the best actor around at playing sweaty, needy desperation – and he becomes more fun to watch as he grows increasingly frayed around the edges. Hawke seems less sure of himself, most of the time he just settles for grinning nervously, and Tomei has been hired to simply stand around in various states of undress (another terrible waste of this consistently undervalued actress); but Hoffman's turn at least gives the picture a solid centre to work around. It's not really enough, though, with Before the Devil Knows You're Dead growing sillier and more hysterical with every passing minute, and it becoming increasingly hard to care as this group of unlikable people carry on doing various unpleasant things to each other. Only the father of the two men – played by Albert Finney on fine form – comes across as anything like a sympathetic character, but even he has blood on his hands by the time this picture has come to an unfulfilling and mystifyingly abrupt conclusion.