If our cultural arbiters are to be believed, the Seventies are back. “Serious,” “adult,” “provocative,” and other signifiers of high-minded Hollywood adorn multiplex posters (“Michael Clayton,” “The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford“), which perhaps says more about the desperation of the moviegoer in a barren 2007 than about the movies themselves. Sidney Lumet‘s “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” will likely be lumped in with the group, but in this instance the New Hollywood nostalgia is legitimate. Directed by someone who actually defined the period, this is no homage by a “last golden age” devotee–it’s the genuine article.
A shockingly intimate prologue, featuring a very naked Philip Seymour Hoffman and Marisa Tomei in a Rio hotel, cuts disconcertingly to a suburban strip mall on a quiet morning. What unfolds is that old standby, the heist gone wrong, in which both gunman and the clerk at a mom-and-pop jewelry store are killed. From that locus the movie splinters into different storylines, following the guilt-ridden brothers who planned the crime and their small-time victims: literally, mom and pop (Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney).
Hoffman plays Andy, a monstrous New York suit married to a restless trophy wife (Tomei), strung out on smack, and on the verge of losing a high-powered job. Always pressed for cash, Andy bullies younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) into a scheme to rob their parents’ store in Westchester. The operation, they imagine, will be a breeze: no guns, a layout they know well, a storekeeper who won’t put up a fight. But as the brothers learn, there is no such thing as a victimless crime. Subbing in for her employee, mom ends up the victim of a wild accomplice’s gunshot.
Admirably eschewing the money-shot impulse to hold the crime until the end, the movie jumps back and forth in time to examine the lead-up and fallout. Lumet’s unassuming yet sensational filmmaking boasts all the virtues of his best work–affectless naturalism, low-fat storytelling, indelible performances (right down to the bit players). Pitched in the present tense, “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” takes the estrangement between Andy and dad, the crime’s animating animus, as a given: no flashbacks to a troubled childhood, only glancing exposition that casts as much shadow as light.
While the men’s respective traumas are specific, Lumet goes beyond the psychological. Foremost about family, the movie also emerges as an incisive snapshot of the modern American male. Overheating capitalism, a frayed social contract, and an indifferent state render Lumet’s men frustrated and impotent. (When Andy goes on a room-wrecking rampage, he does so slowly, resignedly–a rampage by rote.) The movie is a triumph of location shooting, its juxtaposition of spaces–lavish high-rises, rat-hole studios, antiseptic offices, and mundane strip malls bump up against each other–limning not just a recognizable world but also an environment and culture closing in on its exhausted inhabitants. Near the end, the picture even dips a toe into universal fatalism: “The world is an evil place,” proclaims a character. It all ends aptly enough with a sensational bit of business, a murder that almost plays like a mercy killing, and the insistent drone of a flatline that lingers long after the final fadeout.
[Elbert Ventura is a staff writer at Reverse Shot.]