Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
Philip Seymour Hoffman is the best actor working in movies today. There's nothing wrong with Christian Bale, Daniel Day-Lewis, Johnny Depp, Cate Blanchett, or Kate Winslet, but Hoffman has shown such versatility throughout his career without ever hitting a false note that there is little doubt in my mind. Like many people I first remember seeing him as Scotty the gay sound man in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights in 1997, and I didn't realize it was the same actor when I saw his small role in the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski the next year. He was one of the few bright spots of Anderson's Magnolia, nearly stole The Talented Mr. Ripley away from Matt Damon, and did steal away Cameron Crowe's masterpiece Almost Famous. Since then he has given great performance after great performance in such varied roles as a pre-operative transexual in Flawless, the sadly creepy teacher in The 25th Hour, a hopelessly addicted gambler in Owning Mahony (his most underrated work), an immoral preacher in Cold Mountain, his hysterical scenes in the otherwise forgettable Along Came Polly, his deservedly Oscar winning title role in Capote, his great villainous turn in Mission Impossible 3, and his Oscar nominated work in Charlie Wilson's War. Each performance different from the others, and each one competely without a false moment. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead happily joins that list.
Directed by the legendary Sidney Lumet, 50 years after his directorial debut 12 Angry Men announced him as a bright new talent, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is both a fascinating character study of a disentegrating family, and a terrifically suspenseful crime thriller. Hank (Ethan Hawke) is 3 months behind on his child support payments, and his older brother Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is in trouble with the IRS for embezzling countless dollars from his employer. Andy's wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) complains that he doesn't open up to her the way he did on their vacation to Rio, and Andy thinks maybe they could start over their life by moving there. Andy comes to Hank one day with a proposition, a mom and pop jewlery store robbery where they'll use toy guns so that there's no chance of anybody getting hurt, the owners will be taken care of by insurance, and the overall haul should be around $600,000. More than enough for both of them to fix their problems. Hank says that it sounds like a victimless crime, so he agrees to pull the job. I'll stop plot description there because one of the movies many pleasures is the way it slowly reveals the complete happenings of how the robbery goes spectacularly wrong. I will say that it shows remarkable confindence from first time screenwriter Kelly Masterson that the robbery is not the climax of the story, but the catalyst for it.
The casting of Hawke and Hoffman as brothers seems wrong at first, but the movie uses it as an advantage to show the opposing effect that each brother has within the family, Hoffman as the first born, and Hawke as the baby. They also work so well with each other that you feel the sense of history and brotherly connection that Hank and Andy share. Hawke should be commended for his fine work here as Hank. Most actors would shy away from the role of the obviously weaker brother, but Hawke completely nails Hank as the inadequate scared little boy in over his head. Marisa Tomei, who looks better at 43 than she did at 27, does her best work to date as Gina, a role that easily could've been played as the standard secondary "wife" character. She and Hoffman actually feel like a married couple having problems, and not like a movie married couple whom the screenwriters have given hurdles to jump over. A lesser actress's performance would've been gobbled up by how incredible Hoffman is in his role, but Tomei's secret lies in her reactions and subtleties rather than any "big moment" type histrionics. Albert Finney also does superbly subtle work as Andy and Hank's father Charles, who has as much at stake as his boys do. But like I said before, Hoffman is the star here. He has two key scenes of great power, one opposite Hawke as they're trying to cover up their tracks at a drug dealers house (the tension is palpable in that sequence), and the other while in the car with Tomei. In that scene, you see Andy's emotional armor come down for a minute and he gives us years of hurt, disappointment, self-pity, and most of all anger before we can see in Hoffman's eyes as Andy's armor goes back up and he drives away (Tomei looking like she's never seen her husband before). It's the best scene in the movie, and probably the best scene that either actor has ever played.
Ultimately I take away two things from this movie. One is that with his performance here, Philip Seymour Hoffman solidifies his position atop the list of best working actors. And the other is that Sidney Lumet must be one of the most under appreciated great directors in memory. His masterpieces range from the previously mentioned 12 Angry Men, to Long Day's Journey Into Night, Fail-Safe, The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, Prince of the City, The Verdict, Running on Empty, and he has now given us Before the Devil Knows You're Dead at age 83. Few directors can claim as many great movies. He has directed 17 Oscar nominated performances, with four wins. He himself has been nominated 4 times as Best Director, and was given an honorary Oscar a few years ago, but is rarely mentioned alongside the Hitchcock's and Scorsese's of the movie world. I think it's because as a director, his style is to serve the story and the actors before anything else; so that's what people remember from his movies. Many will come out of watching Before the Devil Knows You're Dead talking about how great the ensemble of actors is, how ingenious the plotting of the movie is, how tightly wound so much of the suspense is, but don't forget that the master behind the camera is just as deserving of praise for putting those things on the screen. He's been deserving for 50 years now.