Men Behaving Badly
By Brendon Bouzard
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
Dir. Sidney Lumet, U.S., THINKfilm
Somewhat into Sidney Lumet’s remarkable Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead there’s an astonishing, wordless scene: Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a lumbering account executive for a real estate firm, slowly dismantles the interior of his Pottery Barn catalog condo. It’s a brutal display of psychic trauma, shot in unflinchingly long takes, but Andy nevertheless proves futile at his task, at one point spending an inexorably long time pouring out a decorative tray of smooth rocks onto his oversized coffee table. As embodied by Hoffman, Andy is a clusterfuck of First World Problems—a failing marriage, financial overextension, and piteous delusions of grandeur. An alpha-male extrovert sociopath straight out of Mamet, he’s got a six-figure income, a trophy wife (Marisa Tomei), and a huge chip on his shoulder about his inattentive parents. Hoffman, beady-eyed and sallow-cheeked, a born character-actor who has graduated to lead by sheer force of will, is best when he plays this type of soullessness—his calculating Truman in Capote, his wormy playboy in The Talented Mr. Ripley. It’s a testament to Lumet’s astonishing talent as a director of actors that he’s managed to coax out what might be Hoffman’s best performance yet. Andy is a fireplug of misdirected stress and inarticulate aggression, and Hoffman’s priapismic turn, which strays toward and then crosses the brink of madness without ever approaching mannerism, is searing, registering broad spectrums of emotion with precise detail. It’s a showy role, yes —Hoffman pounds on tables, weeps pathetically, shouts wildly—but Lumet’s elegant staging and Hoffman’s commanding presence depict one of the most recognizably tragic figures on screen in recent memory.
Yet despite this, it’s difficult to isolate a single performance in this film as a standout, as Sidney Lumet directs actors with such staggering confidence. If Andy is tragedy writ large, his brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) is a delicate study in the smallness of man’s ethical prerogatives, consistently bowing under the weight of oppositional forces. Hawke plays Hank with a manic, ratlike intensity—it’s a brave, unguarded piece of acting and probably the best thing he’s done in a movie not directed by Richard Linklater. But even then, I’m ignoring Tomei’s shocking understatement, Albert Finney’s seething rage as Andy and Hank’s father, and the scene-stealing Michael Shannon, providing some much-needed levity as a small-time hood.
If this all seems rather hyperbolic, it’s because Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead deserves hyperbole—it’s a late-career slam dunk from one of America’s greatest filmmakers that, like the best pulp, has an extraordinary moral weight and a relentless fatalism. Lumet’s critics have pegged his work as phallocentric, and Before the Devil will surely add fuel to their fire. It’s a movie about men in crisis—feckless, hollow, emotionally stunted men who turn to robbery and violence as outs for their middle-class despair. It’s one of his darkest, meanest visions of America, a world of suburban strip malls, joyless sex, and perfect crimes gone miserably awry. The story of Andy and Hank, brothers who conspire to knock off their own parents’ jewelry store, and then deal with the unintended consequences, the film advances tremendously on Lumet’s modest comeback Find Me Guilty and reasserts the director as an indelible American storyteller.
Given how much acclaim the director’s individual films—12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Serpico, The Verdict, among them—have accrued, it’s notable that the director himself has managed to be so consistently undervalued. Credit for Network and The Verdict is often given to their writers, Dog Day and Serpico to Pacino. Dismissed during his early career as a wannabe Elia Kazan, Lumet is a filmmaker who even at his peak output in the Seventies was a throwback—he rejects notions of directorial authorship, scorns hyper-stylization (though one look at Long Day’s Journey Into Night or The Pawnbroker, both collaborations with cinematographer Boris Kaufman, exposes just how unrepentantly gorgeous his filmmaking is), and, trained in the theater, places his greatest emphasis on his actors’ performances, blocking his films out months in advance in rented warehouses and Ukrainian community centers. His chameleonic career and affectless style stifle auteurist readings; he takes jobs just to have a job and produces his fair share of woebegone misfires (Gloria, anyone?). But over his 50-year career (!) producing features (in addition to ten working in television), Lumet has been one of Hollywood’s most enduring craftsmen. His favored narrative and thematic interests are as unpretentious as the man himself: political and social justice, the institutions of law and police, and the way that greed poisons these institutions.
Told from three perspectives—the brothers’ and their father’s—and with an accountant’s eye for detail, Before the Devil is a culmination ad extremum of these themes. One of few films in recent memory that justifies and even merits an achronological approach, it has the investigational quality of a Faulkner novel, holding back and gradually revealing information as it uncovers the horror of a family in rapid decline. Its closest narrative companion within Lumet’s own career is his surveillance-minded heist flick The Anderson Tapes, but the moral weight of the film is closer to Prince of the City—there’s a gripping understanding of human tragedy and a nearly Biblical ethical purview here, knowledge of the unflagging iniquity of man. The key to the film’s success is the manner in which it balances its polar registers—the action is violent and sudden, with beautiful, crisp sound design by David Paterson, but the underlying domestic melodrama is what Lumet’s really interested in. The ruptures between each segment—signified by a fast-paced flicker between two shots—are as formalist as the defiantly classical Lumet gets. Elsewhere his filmmaking is populated with things like claustrophobic high-angle and wide-angle shots, languidly paced continuity editing, sleekly gliding camera moves, and an emphasis on his actors’ staging. In other words, the same strategies he was using masterfully with 12 Angry Men in 1957.
If Lumet’s formal interests have not developed far beyond that of his earliest works, his bravery has. There’s a provocative vitality to his camerawork that feels entirely new—one repeated shot of Hawke’s face in extreme close-up is distorted and grotesque enough to be in Inland Empire. Shooting on HD seems to have freed Lumet—indeed, at his NYFF press conference, Lumet decried celluloid as an obsolete “pain in the ass” and noted that some of his own past work would have benefited from the cost-efficient experimentation video awards. It’s the sort of statements one would expect out of some up-and-coming Young Turk rather than one of the more orthodox of modern filmmakers. Lumet is a veteran of 83 years of living and nearly 60 years behind the camera. So why does this feel like the most accomplished debut American feature of the year?