Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2007

Crime of Dispassion

By David Luhrssen
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Crime of Dispassion The Devil in the Details November 20, 2007 | 08:23 AM Robberies often go wrong but the jewelry store heist at the center of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is about as bad as bad gets. The robber expects an easy time with the old woman behind the counter, never imagining she'd pull a gun and shoot, sending him through the glass front door to die on the pavement among the sharp, broken shards. He got off a shot, too, cutting her down and leaving her brain dead. The old woman wasn't the expected part-time shop clerk but the store's owner. Shot in the attempted hold-up was the mother of both the crime's mastermind and the getaway driver. Hank, waiting in the getaway car, speeds away from the crime scene, the unlocked passenger door flapping from the sudden acceleration. He pounds the steering wheel harder and harder in the impotent rage of a man frustrated, out of control and under the heel of fate. Hank is a screw-up, he knows it, and this time he's screwed up badly. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a return to form for director Sidney Lumet, who wasted his talent on Hollywood duds during the last years but was a skillful urban storyteller in such 1970s crime movies as Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico and Prince of the City. The main characters of Before the Devil are like younger cousins to the crooks of Lumet's old films. Rising from modest roots, they majored in business and work in colorless offices at the end of long, bleak hallways. The robbery's instigator and perpetrator, brothers Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke), are people of little character invested with pathos and even a measure of empathy through powerful performances. One of our best character actors, Hoffman's supercilious arched brow and arrogant smirk establish Andy as a bully under his silk necktie. He also suffuses his character with sadness as he reaches for a dream that remains forever out of reach. Hawke has seldom shone brighter than as Andy's younger brother, who managed to become an adult without growing up. When Andy presents his squalid scheme to rob their parents' jewelry store, Hank mumbles and shrugs but is ultimately powerless against the greasy wheels of his brother's carefully argued, carefully plotted robbery. Hank is soft clay in Andy's morally calloused hands. Preyed upon by a hectoring ex-wife and a spoiled daughter who attends a posh private school, Hank is imploding under financial pressure. The heist, which Andy describes as victimless, with all loses to their parents covered by insurance, becomes Hank's way of keeping up with alimony and sending his girl on an overnight field trip to see The Lion King on Broadway. Meanwhile, Andy is treading water and gradually sinking under the weight of his glossy materialistic life, an executive job of mind numbing meetings and spreadsheets, an expensive drug addiction and a marriage fading from emotional distance and sexual incontinence. He shares a dream with his wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) to start over in Brazil, whose sandy beaches and torrid rhythms they once enjoyed on holiday and relive in happy memory. But starting over is expensive. To throw another twist onto the fiery forge, Hank is in love with Gina. The affection is unreturned. Gina apparently enjoys having sex with Hank, a younger, more virile approximation of the man she once loved. It could be argued that in Before the Devil's multiple universes of depravity and failure, Hank and Gina's unhappy affair is one dimension too many. The subplot, however, doesn't get in the way of the larger story. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is structured in several chapters overlapping in time and exploring the characters' conflicting perspectives. It's a gripping and grim moral fable about the contemporary American middle class, starting with the comfortably semi-retired parents (Albert Finney turns in a sterling performance as the father) and the overextended, rudderless sons, one of whom (Andy) maintains appearances at all cost while the other (Hank) slips toward the abyss of the underclass. Too frightened to carry out Andy's scheme alone, Hank employs a lowlife bar buddy to do the stickup. His death in the jewelry store triggers another set of problems as the criminal's family try to move in on Hank. Andy and Hank built lives from the thin materials of contemporary American consumer-materialism and their houses are coming apart in the storm of a tough world. Theft is Andy's solution but crime, in the hands of amateurs, seldom pays.
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