Art critic Clive Bell once wrote that significant form (ie, good art) is achieved when the total is more than the sum of its parts. Acclaimed director Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is hardly pedestrian, but ultimately the film does not add up.
This is a story about family members who never knew how to be a family. Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is an accountant with a nasty drug habit and a disordered appetite for money. He is married to his beautiful wife Gina (Marisa Tomei), but he loves himself more than he could ever love her. Andy’s immature younger brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke) was babied throughout his life and never learned responsibility. The result is a messy divorce and a suffocating alimony debt. Both brothers find themselves financially desperate and Andy devises the ingenious plan of knocking off their parents’ small business. For Andy, it’s an act of deep-seated bitterness for not being loved enough as a child. For Hank, it’s an act of desperation and manipulation by his older brother, Andy.
Hank looks up to Andy, while Andy is subconsciously jealous of Hank’s familial status as the beloved baby of the family. Their relationship speaks years of history and jealousy, and they don’t even need words to show it. Albert Finney plays the role of their father, who manages to chain the film together in bitterness and animosity. His sons’ robbery, we learn very early in the film, is a botched job and the film jolts back and forth between the machinations of the crime and its aftermath.
Lumet drives the point home that this story has no heroes, only villains. None of them have any redeeming qualities; whenever they have an opportunity to do right, they turn left. Sure, they are driven to desperation. But the cul-de-sac they find themselves stuck in is a product of their own doing, or perhaps undoing.
Sitting on a crushed linen sofa chair in a high rise condominium, overlooking a magnificent view of downtown New York, Andy admits to himself that his life does not add up to the sum of its parts. This is an understatement. His life is repulsive, and before the end of the film he is given a sobering opportunity to see it framed as the macabre joke that it is.
The story is a modern-day crime melodrama, successful largely in part by its stellar cast. The constant time jumping technique usually works well when it attempts to misdirect the viewer. In this case however, we walk into scenes confused and leave without any significant epiphany moment. Lumet might be a master at building tension and extracting emotion from his cast, but these should not be the sole ingredients of significant form.
Lumet is best known for his films from the seventies, including Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. These are splendid stories that pushed boundaries and exposed the fragility of the common criminal. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead has the same stuff running through its veins, but the contemporary elements added this time around are an increase in sexual content, nudity, drug abuse and graphic violence. While these aspects are often associated with the criminal mind (at least on the silver screen), it is up for debate whether they are necessary visuals in Lumet’s latest.
The title is a reference to the Gaelic toast, “May you be half an hour in heaven, before the devil knows you’re dead.” Hank, Andy and almost every character in the film go to extreme lengths for their last few moments of happiness on earth before their fate catches up with them. The film ends with little resolution and increasing disappointment in the characters we’ve come to sympathize with. Despite all their hardships as victims of an unfair life, we are left only with reasons for why they commit their transgressions, not excuses. Maybe that is the point that Lumet is trying to make.
After receiving his Lifetime Achievement Award on Oscar night three years ago, Lumet has come out with what is perhaps his greatest movie in over 30 years. However, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is more a culmination of his style than a radical shift in cinematic thought. Still, there is little doubt that come Oscar night 2008, the film will be nominated for several categories. And it may even win a few. At 83 years old, one almost hopes that Lumet goes out with his own half an hour of bliss before his final curtain call.
David Demers is a student at the University of Ottawa.