Monday, November 5, 2007

Parts That Add Up

If you go down the lengthy list of films that Sidney Lumet has directed, yeah, you’ll find a few unfortunate titles. Of course, you’ll also find FAIL-SAFE, SERPICO, DOG DAY AFTERNOON, NETWORK, RUNNING ON EMPTY…I could go on, but you know what? That would be enough. Hell, NETWORK would probably be enough. Back in 1999 I was in a nearly empty Cinerama Dome to see his remake of GLORIA and I ran into somebody I knew a little. “I should have known I’d see you here,” he said. Hey, it was a new Lumet film and how many more of those were we going to get? Of course, GLORIA is nowhere near one of his better titles, but what I’m saying is that Sidney Lumet has earned enough of my respect for me to go see anything he’s ever going to make.

After directing GLORIA at the age of seventy-four Lumet dropped off the map for a few years. At his age, it was understandable to assume that maybe that was going to be it. He quietly reemerged last year with the underrated, badly marketed Vin Diesel courtroom drama FIND ME GUILTY. Not great, but good enough and it was a pleasure to see one more film by him.

There, see what I just said? ‘One more film’. No point in talking around the issue, because when anybody makes a new film at the age of eighty-three it’s hard not to wonder about it possibly being that ‘one more film’. And you could say that making any film at that age is a sort of triumph.

But even more important is that BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD is a triumph all on its own. Directed by Lumet from a script credited to Kelly Masterson, it’s a harsh, bitter crime drama centering around a botched heist planned by two brothers (Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke). Both men are badly in need of money, each for different reasons. Both are totally incapable of being prepared for what is going to happen to them. The characters are vividly drawn, excellently played by the two actors and each are both weak and strong in believable ways. As good as both actors are it's Hoffman who takes posession of the frame whenever he turns up, making his character the center of the movie more than it would have been with someone else in the role.

Marisa Tomei as Hofman’s wife continues her streak of quietly doing the occasional terrific job in certain films. For the record, Tomei also gets surprisingly nude in several scenes. She’s nearly forty-three? Holy cow. Albert Finney, whose association with the director goes all the way back to MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS in 1974, is the father of the two brothers. It’s tough to imagine any other actor doing what he does here. His character grows in stature and importance as the film goes on and it’s thrilling to watch. Also very good in smaller roles are Amy Ryan, see recently in GONE BABY GONE and Michael Shannon from Friedkin's BUG.

Details of the plot should be avoided, but the outcome of the badly-planned heist affects their family a great deal. We know right away how bad the robbery goes. What we don’t know right away is the how and why and the film takes on a dovetail narrative to tell us as it focuses on one character then goes back a few days to deal with another. This is a story method that we’ve seen many times from THE KILLING to RESERVOIR DOGS but of course it’s what’s done with the story that matters and BEFORE THE DEVIL’s method of telling its story never feels less than totally fresh and as a result becomes truly emotionally harrowing.

Fitting for a film with such a fractured narrative, Hoffman’s character at one point muses about how he himself isn’t the sum of his own parts, that he doesn’t feel that he really adds up. The character, obviously feeling bitterness towards his family and where he comes from, genuinely believes this. Family has a way of doing that to you. Fortunately, the movie does add up, in a way that it totally unexpected. Was this a case of a really good script well directed, was Lumet connecting with the basic material more than he has recently? Did he, dare I ask, look at this as maybe one final grand statement? All of the above? Adding to this is my own personal conection, coming from how some of this takes place up in Westchester County, my old stomping grounds. A nice place to grow up, but I’m glad I’m not there right now. Either way, it’s a pleasure to once again go back to New York with Sidney Lumet. It almost seems to frivolous to say “His best film since…” or “One of the best films of the year” in relation to BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD. The movie exists. That’s what matters. It’s a work by a master filmmaker who has taken a simple genre piece and made its parts add up beyond what we would expect. It cuts deep.

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