Eugene Weekly : Movies : 11.21.07


No Fallen Angels Here
A stupid crime gone terribly wrong

BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD: Directed by Sidney Lumet. Written by Kelly Masterson. Cinematography, Ron Fortunato. Music, Carter Burwell. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Albert Finney, Ethan Hawke and Marisa Tomei. THINKFilm, 2007. R. 117 min.

Hawke and Hoffman in Before the Devil…

If you are the sort of person who, when watching a movie, likes to have a character which you can like, if not outright identify with — not, as they say, that there’s anything wrong with that — you may want to skip Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, the new film from 83-year-old director Sidney Lumet (Network, 12 Angry Men, some several dozen other films). A bleak, brutal chronicle of a family tearing itself apart, Before the Devil (which takes its name from a phrase that begins “May you be in heaven for half an hour…”) offers only one potentially likeable character; otherwise, it’s full of fuckups, jerks, selfish bastards, hapless fathers. It is a story of bad choices and worse motivations: To plan to rob one’s parents’ jewelry store, as unhappy, drug-addicted would-be mastermind Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and sad-sack Hank (Ethan Hawke), do, is bad enough, but to do it for a relatively small amount of money because both are incapable of pulling their lives together in a more legal fashion makes the crime even worse.

Of course, it all goes terribly, terribly wrong, and wrong in a way we get to see from numerous points of view as Lumet and first-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson slice the story into slivers of perspective, the handful of timelines connected by some distracting, ugly cuts. The nonlinear structure works beautifully, lining up Andy and Hank’s story with that of their vengeful father, Charles (Albert Finney), and patiently piecing together an ominous, often taut narrative that lets no one off the hook for their actions. This is not a film that will allow the audience to feel smugly above its increasingly disheveled protagonists, but it’s not easy to sympathize with them, either. Still, while Before the Devil works as a melodrama about the horrors that follow a handful of terrible decisions, the story seems to take place in a strange void, its timelines lacking a true connection to the characters’ pasts. There’s nowhere to go but down after the crime is committed, but how Andy and Hank got to such a selfish, lost point in the first place remains a mystery, and one not solved by the lone scene in which Andy rails against his father. Maybe it’s not about the money after all. But maybe what it’s about is irrelevant: These are men who would have fallen one way or the other, given the chance.

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead opens Friday, Nov. 30, at the Bijou.