Monday, November 26, 2007

Monday Movie Review: Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) 9/10
Hank (Ethan Hawke) and Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are brothers. For their own reasons, each is desperate for money. Together they decide to commit the perfect crime—rob their parents' small suburban jewelry store. As things fall apart, the brothers become increasingly desperate, and more and more of their motivations and characters are revealed. Directed by Sidney Lumet.

Nowadays, movie fans are obsessive about continuity and plot holes. I honestly don't think Hitchcock would get the raves today he got in his heyday, because people would walk out of the theater griping. "That'd never happen!" "Why didn't he...?" "Police procedure would require..." Yada yada yada. So let's start out by saying that Before the Devil Knows You're Dead has plot holes. Some of them are problematic, and detract from the enjoyment of the film. But BtDKYD is also a brilliant movie, and you shouldn't let a few details get in the way of your experience.

I bring this up because BtDKYD is a heist movie, and a heist movie demands more attention to plot construction than, say, a romance. This week I also watched The Killing, another heist movie in which everything falls apart. But The Killing is flawlessly constructed. None of the heist movies that I love (and I love many) have glaring plot holes; good construction is important to the genre.

But is BtDKYD really a heist movie? One could argue that it is a noir, a family story, or a character study. The heist guides us into an examination of complex and difficult people. We learn more about them, hating them more and more as the film goes on, yet paradoxically caring more and more about what happens to them.

Hank is a loser. Everything about him screams it: His ill-fitting, cheap clothes, his cheesy mustache, his sad-sack expression. He allows himself to be brow-beaten by his older brother, and it's clear he's been doing so his whole life. Hank is clearly the charmer of the family, perhaps taking after his mother's clear-eyed beauty (she is played with great dignity by Rosemary Harris). He is the pampered, beautiful baby, getting by on looks where common sense and brains are lacking. Andy, on the other hand, is shrewd and calculating, apparently his father's son (and Albert Finney is a good choice, physically, to play Hoffman's father).

Wonderful cast, right? I have been complaining lately about the unworldly beauty of every single person you see on a large or small screen. The real faces and ages of actors are disappearing. But not only do the people in this cast have real character, they are allowed to age. Hoffman's wife is played by Marisa Tomei, who is actually three years older than him. When was the last time that happened in a movie?

Lumet is a master of knowing where to place a camera and what to do with it once he gets it there. There are amazing things done with color and light in this film. In a disturbing scene, Andy begins to reveal himself in the most inappropriate way, as a white background is replaced by red. The suburban stripmall that houses the jewelry store is as ordinary as a home movie. Hank's cheap apartment is washed in the colors of dirt.

There is something in BtDKYD about wasted lives, about how we keep being the assholes we are, and about how we can spin that so it gets worse and worse and worse. Andy and Hank are assholes, no doubt. They are shitty husbands, dishonest sons, crooks, theives, and not even good brothers. But we relate to them because they look at the mess their lives are in and long to get out, and they look to their own family to help them. It won't work, of course, but the insanity of the longing is compelling.

(Before the Blog Knows You've Cross-posted)