Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a Greek tragedy- at least that's how it seems. Kelly Masterson's surprisingly complex (you might say convoluted, but the winding back and forth seems to simultaneously become less important and more coherent as the film progresses) screenplay presents little sympathy for her characters, sidelining those who might possibly be a hook for the average audience, or otherwise paring down aspects of character that might tend towards pleasant. These are dirty, nasty people, but Masterson, along with director Sidney Lumet, maneuvers them somehow into some kind of verbose epicity.
This is not a bad thing. The film, necessarily, focuses at first on the film's central event- a robbery- which it frames its entire conceit around. Titles inform us both where we are in relation to the crime, and who, ostensibly, we are "seeing" this part of the film from- although never, really, does the film actually seem to enter these people's heads. You can't blame it for not wanting to. Masterson and Lumet keep us on the outside looking in (much like Marisa Tomei's Gina often does), watching the greed and selfishness of the leading duo of brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) unfurl into pain, danger and death. There were a few walkouts of the screening I attended, and I think that makes clear that the filmmakers are not making it easy for the audience here- they don't want you involved, so to speak, but they want you transfixed, unnerved, horrified. And, ultimately, as I sat there chewing on my knuckles, that is exactly what happened.
It initially seems as though Masterson is simply adopted the familiar schematic of three different viewpoints on one story- the two brothers, and their father (Albert Finney)- but, as the film progresses and time crosses over itself, the narrative structure seems more unbalanced, and fittingly more dangerous. It shows you things and then doubles back, comprehending an understanding of something that possibly seemed out of place before. This is particularly the case with Hoffman's character: at first he seems somewhat of a vulgar dullard, but then moments highlight his crafty selfishness, and further progression reveals his self-destructive volatility. One particularly clever moment- and this won't really spoil anything- sees Hoffman's Andy shoot a pathetic sleeping figure who is clear echo of himself. Even these characters dislike themselves, for all they want is to escape- and, as Tomei makes abundantly clear in her final scene, they don't even know how to do that properly. These may be a collective of unlikeable, or else vague and unknowable, people, but there is no joy or happiness found in this- the tragic crescendo is almost a release, an escape as volatile and crass as the characters have proved themselves to be.
It helps that those involved are on such pitch-perfect form. Hoffman, in a role very different from his other 2007 performances (in The Savages and Charlie Wilson's War), moves through the character like a ferocious bulldog, understanding how greasy his Andy is when trying to be charming, how unbalanced he is with regard to his emotions. Andy is often shown red-faced- not from embarassment, but from the sheer fatuousness of his life. Andy wants more than he deserves, and he cares about no one in getting there. Hawke, meanwhile, may not bear much of a physical resemblance to his 'brother', but he knows his character just as well, reflecting a strange mirror image of Andy in his character Hank- Hanks hates his life, himself, is terrified and nervy, and, at one point, is such a wreck that Hawke's facial muscles seem to go into spasm. (Lumet keeps close up on this- you can't escape the trembling consequences.) Finney is somewhat undermined by having his character turn into a one man vendetta, but earlier in the film he is poignant and just a little bit aggressive like Andy (his lesser favourite). And Tomei, while without her own titles or insight, turns a possibly one-dimensional character into somewhat of an enigma who doesn't even know herself- the film doesn't ask what she wants, but maybe that's just as well, because Gina doesn't seem to know either.
Carter Burwell's score is as exactly verbose as the story, and his grand melodies really aid in amping up the feeling of Greek tragedy mentioned earlier. You get the sense that Before the Devil Knows You're Dead isn't meant to be treated as real, but as high drama, or some kind of morality tale- don't do this shit, kids, Lumet would be saying, if he weren't so horrified himself that any explicit finger wagging is thankfully excluded. For such a grand old age (83!), Lumet seems to have found some kind of energy again, for his direction is tight and controlled, keeping the different pitchs of performance balanced out, toying slyly with his audience with some truly shocking moments, and gliding effortlessly through the story's tragic pitches. This really is a filmmaker on the top of his game once more.
It's not easy to like Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. But, somehow, that's what I've ended up doing. It's grimy depiction of a New York gone desperate is hardly uplifting, but I certainly found an emotional release in the story, a perfect culmination of two hours of unbalanced nastiness, and I walked out feeling, not happy, but shaken, somehow changed. B+