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Saturday, December 8, 2007

Review: Before The Devil Knows You're Dead

This is a fantastic film. Tightly plotted, well acted, and compelling, this is easily one of the best films of the year – and in a year full of great movies, that’s really saying something. It’s a crime film, but one that’s less concerned about the crime than it is with the consequences of it. The two perpetrators, Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke), don’t just spend the movie trying to get away with it; they also contend with their remorse and regret for having done it in the first place.

Hoffman and Hawke play brothers – which might not sound believable on paper, but in the film it works. In their conversations leading up to and following the crime, you get a feel for the history that exists between them. You believe that Hank would let Andy talk him into the heist because you get the sense that all their lives, Andy has been coming up with ideas and getting Hank to follow through on them for him. There’s a very natural older sibling/younger sibling dynamic at play between them.

The plot itself – two people need money, they plan a crime, something goes wrong, and mayhem ensues in the attempt to cover it up – is standard, but the way that director Sidney Lumet presents it is not. We follow a character towards a plot point, reach it, and then the film doubles back to go towards that point again from a different perspective. The narrative structure is one of the film’s many strengths because we see things from every angle, and it allows the film to focus less on the crime itself than on the people who have to live with its fallout.

The performances in this film are excellent, especially those of Hoffman and Hawke. Hank is a guy who just can’t seem to get it together, who owes his ex-wife (Amy Ryan who between this film and Gone, Baby, Gone could carve out a nice niche for herself as women with chips on their shoulders) three months of child support, and his inability to pay for his daughter’s field trip leads her to declare him a “loser.” There’s an assumption on Andy’s part that Hank was always the favourite of their parents, though their father (Albert Finney) disdainfully declares that Hank has always been “such a baby.” Desperation surrounds Hank: he’s desperate to pay off his debts, he’s desperate to do something with his life, but mostly he’s desperate for love.

While Hank is a character who seems to have already lost control of his life before the film begins, Andy is a character who seems much more controlled, though in reality his life is just as chaotic. His marriage to his wife, Gina (Marissa Tomei) is troubled, the IRS is about to catch up with him for embezzling from his company, and he has a drug addiction that seems to have taken over his life (there is a scene early in the film where Andy cuts up some cocaine and emits a long sigh. This, too, has become a routine chore in his life). While Hank looks scruffy and nervous, Andy is cool and calm, his hair always perfectly slicked back. When he lets out his frustrations at home, he doesn’t manically trash the place but instead methodically goes through the house displacing things, going through the motions of anger that he doesn’t quite want himself to feel because he might not be able to control it.

As I said before, this is a crime film, but it isn’t an action film. This film takes its time, it slows the action down, distils it. We listen to the characters talk and sometimes we simply follow them through rooms, getting a feel for their lives. We understand their relationships with each other. One of the more interesting aspects of the film, to me, is that both brothers assume that it’s Hank, the perpetual screw up, who will do something to blow their cover. However, it’s something that Andy does which brings about the final scene and an act that falls somewhere between Shakespeare and Eugene O’Neill.

See this movie. I can’t recommend it enough.

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