Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (review)

Accidental Crime

Oh, but these are awful people, honestly. They’re so deliciously amoral that it’s coolly insane fun to watch them implode, it’s true, but you’d have to run far and fast were you to find yourself actually encountering them lest their slimy stink rub off on you. Which makes it okay to smirk at them — we know we’re better. Really, it’s not too often that you can be so confident of that, so revel in your superiority.
The thing is, these are authentic people: not cartoon villains or action-movie bad guys or any of those unpleasant but unreal “real people” who inhabit so many of our movies. They’re just authentically fucked up, and pretty proud of it, it seems. “You’re a prick, Andy,” his brother Hank tells him. “I always was,” Andy replies, with a shrug, like “Tell me something I don’t know, and might actually care about.” And then the brothers get on with their business, which is planning to rob the strip-mall jewelry store run by their own parents. Oh, and Hank also gets on with screwing Andy’s wife, Gina, behind Andy’s back.

If there was a dog somewhere waiting to be kicked, these’d be the guys to do it. They wouldn’t necessarily enjoy it, maybe, but hey, it’s there to be kicked, and someone’s gotta do it.

That’s the kind of sly, nasty casualness that takes Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead into a realm of mopey genius. Director Sidney Lumet (Find Me Guilty) — working from a clever first script by playwright turned screenwriter Kelly Masterson — brings a gritty, indolent cool reminiscent of his films of the 1970s (Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico) but without the manic density. Crime isn’t urgent here: it’s slothful, dogged, a chore of the lazy and the dumb who do it not for the thrill but out of a sheer lack of imagination. You need some dough? *sigh* Guess you’ll have to steal it from somewhere. Add it to the daily to-do list.

Plainly naturalistic and not bothering with fancy flourishes, Devil doesn’t overexplain itself as it gives us the heist from multiple angles, as if to show how many different ways a couple of idiots can screw up a job. Andy’s perspective lets us see the always riveting Philip Seymour Hoffman (Mission: Impossible III, Capote) anew: here’s a man, his Andy, a deep-in-debt broker, who’s both smart and stupid at the same time, and a man for whom, it seems, getting out of bed in the morning must be a trial. Hank’s perspective gives us a sneaky, shifty Ethan Hawke (Fast Food Nation, Lord of War) twitching his way through a role that’s as meaty for an actor as it is meager for the character: Hank is a shell of a person sleepwalking through life, and Hawke is pretty darn funny with it.

Maybe it’s all meant to be more tragic than I’m seeing it. Devil shifts focus again, and now we have the perspective of Hank and Andy’s father, Charles (Albert Finney: The Bourne Ultimatum, Big Fish), from which we learn how royally his sons have, unbeknowst to him, messed things up. The film does meander toward deeper tragedy than you might expect, except that the tragedy is all in the unthinking carelessness of Hank and Andy for anything other than their own immediate self-interest, and it’s questionable if they’re even as concerned as all that with their own selfishness. Selfishness may be too much work for them, too.

As crime thrillers go, this one is so laid back that it all seems to happen by accident: guns sort of appear out of nowhere, for instance, melt in and out of drawers and pockets just in time for someone to pull a trigger he shouldn’t have pulled just as someone who shouldn’t be standing in the path of a bullet shouldn’t be there. For all its seeming lethargy, though, Devil is madly suspenseful — because you never can tell what kind of accident is going to happen next.

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