In this world of over-labeling, November now has the moniker “Noirvember,” signifying a month to celebrate the film noir subgenre. At least, for a few of us cinephiles out there it has this label. I figured, why not fall in line and celebrate a few Neo-Noir films, some fresh new classics that reshape the noir tropes through modern filming techniques and, sometimes, a wink and a nod to the world in which they came?
The great Sidney Lumet was 82 when he directed his final film, 2007’s electric and often overlooked thriller Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. He was 82 when he told this tale with a youthful, energetic approach behind the camera, a tale of deception and murder and drugs and violence. It’s hard to imagine a director half his age delivering such a wrecking ball of a picture, but here was the master himself, in his final years, creating one final masterpiece.
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead sinks its teeth into you, it crawls under your skin. It thrills you, shocks you, and cuts into your soul. It is the story of two brothers, whose only shared characteristic is desperation. We first meet Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a slick-haired and prideful Manhattan payroll manager on vacation with his wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei, more stunningly beautiful with every passing year). The two are in South America and, despite the graphic sex scene that opens their story, all is not well. There are troubles hidden beneath the seemingly idyllic lovers. Back home, Andy has a serious drug problem that sends him to a high rise where his dealer shoots him up and has to listen to his life musings. His addiction, and the constant dipping into the company till have built a mountain of money issues and impending audit problems at work. Things are unraveling for Andy.
Hank, played by Ethan Hawke, is Andy’s less-successful, more aloof brother. He has an ex-wife (Amy Ryan) who hates him and demands child support, and a daughter who gives him chances upon chances to come through for her. Hank also happens to be sleeping with Gina on the side. The fact Hoffman and Hawke play brothers, sharing almost no discernible physical traits, speaks to the heart of the film. These brothers could not be any different, were it not for the money problems they both have for varying reasons.
Andy has a plan to fix their problems. It’s a simple robbery, a jewelry store in suburbia, away from Manhattan. He knows all the angles, because he and Hank have a connection to this jewelry store: it’s their parent’s store. Andy can’t conduct the robbery himself, he’d be recognized almost immediately, so he enlists simpleton Hank to pull off the heist one morning when he knows it will be quick and easy. Surely nothing will go wrong here.
Only things do go horribly wrong in incredibly shocking ways, thanks to Hank bringing in a third party (Brian F. O’Byrne) who is more incompetent than Hank. There is a murder, and everything begins to fall apart. Lumet frames the story with storylines that jump back and forth in time, to days before the murder, the day of the murder, and the aftermath. The structure may be superfluous in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, but Lumet ensures the cuts are all carefully placed and they create a fractured sense of time, adding to the frantic desperation of this Greek tragedy’s players. Albert Finney plays the brother’s father, Charles, a man with his own burning desire to find the truth behind the tragedy.
All the actors are at the top of their game. Hoffman oozes an unseemly deception, backloaded with paternal disapproval from Charles. Andy’s need for his father’s approval never finds the right place in his life, and is masked with heroin and diverted by his own pride. As Hank, Hawke toes the line between lovable loser and helpless idiot in one of his finest performances in a career loaded with fine performances. Hank’s romance with Gina is especially fascinating, serving as a way of getting the better of his brother who most certainly outsmarted him their entire life. He may very well care for Gina, a sad and aimless person in her own life, but make no mistake, his motivations run deeper than lust.
The screenplay from Kelly Masterson (who also wrote Snowpiercer, of all things) balances these plates in the air with perfect depth and attention to nuance, and what is not said in between the lines. The hard-boiled elements of the picture build to an incredible crescendo, and then release with a cathartic moment of pain and justice. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead would find itself on the top mantle of many filmmakers careers. Here, for Lumet, it is a quiet little masterwork, tucked into the B-sides of his crime classics like Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon. Make no mistake about it though, it’s as good as his early classics, and the ferocity with which he lights every scene is the work of a youthful soul in a master filmmaker’s aging exterior.