Saturday, November 17, 2007

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007, Sidney Lumet)

OK dudes, I don't get it. What are you seeing in this movie that gets you all excited? Maybe it was the incestuous crime story and the Carter Burwell score, but for at least the final hour of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead I kept flashing back to Fargo, a movie that does a story like this RIGHT. A lot of it comes down to directorial style, or in Lumet's case a lack thereof- in Fargo, everything was in the service of a specific Coen brothers worldview, albeit one that's darker than usual. By contrast, Lumet has never been one to impose himself too heavily on a film, which often means that Lumet's work succeeds or fails based on two things- script and performances. Sadly, the script here comes across less as a finished, ready-to-film work than a first draft waiting to be ironed out by a John Sayles special spit'n'polish. As a result, the snazzy chronology doesn't work as well as it should, since too often it feels like if the story was told in a straightforward manner the reviews would probably be mediocre instead of the cavalcade of raves I've read thusfar. In addition, the characterizations are for the most part sketchy, which means that the talented cast has to shoulder the burden of answering our question, "who are these people?" Alas, few of them do. The women come off worst- Rosemary Harris has almost nothing to do, Amy Ryan doesn't have a single significant line of dialogue that doesn't revolve around wheedling ex-husband Ethan Hawke for money he doesn't have, and Marisa Tomei (who is so hot here, BTW) ends up playing the unsatisfied wife role. Even actors in more significant roles tend to go overboard on the tics- Hawke appears to be on constant anxiety mode, while the usually-dependable Albert Finney screws up his face and stumbles around like he's drunk on grief. There are two exceptions. Philip Seymour Hoffman actually makes the lead role work, but seeing as how he's playing an amoral sucker who gets himself in over his head and isn't expected to endear himself to the audience, some of that is just that he was the right guy for the job. But best of all is Michael Shannon, last seen in William Friedkin's Bug, who displays the same unhinged intensity here in a mere two scenes that cut through the actorly bullshit and chronological dicking around in a way that made me briefly sit up and pay full attention. But these two aside, I was left with thinking, in the words of Matt Damon, "qui gives a shit?" And more importantly, why should I? Is it a case of Imminent Death Syndrome? Because that would place us all in an awkward position.

And remember kids, crime doesn't pay.

Rating: 5 out of 10.


Jason_alley2 said...

Well, no doubt part of it is that I'm just a sucker for a good bag-of-money morality tale, but I just dug this movie all around.

I thought the acting (by everyone) was excellent, the chronology tricks interesting, and the way these characters' personalities and relationships are slowly and subtly revealed within that odd timeline was compelling.

I totally agree with you on Michael Shannon - funny and scary all at once. "Sorry's not gonna pay my sister's bills, Chico."

Paul C. said...

I dunno, I just didn't feel like the characters' personalities were revealed all that well. We don't really know much of anything about them before the crime starts to take shape, and aside from Hoffman we don't learn anything particularly interesting once the shit goes down.

As a result, when the final scene happens, it doesn't have the impact that it ought to, because we never really got much of an impression of what those two characters' relationship is like. The movie is all crime- planning, execution, fallout. Would it have killed them to give us a little more from the characters that we could latch on to?

Also, Michael Shannon rules. I don't know how much range he's got, but I could watch him play this same dude in two or three movies a year for decades to come. He's that scary good.