First, a spoiler — less of plot, perhaps, than of appetite: Picture Philip Seymour Hoffman, pasty and puffy and a little remote as always…and naked in bed, going at it with Marisa Tomei. Now you know, but you’re still not prepared. The camera lets us look them over, from a few angles, and the sex seems increasingly procedural — with ogle-able breasts aplenty (his and hers), but not a whole lot in the way of intimacy.
There’s a sense, too, of the filmmaker himself trying to decide just what to make of this spectacle he’s staged, what stance to take. The filmmaker is Sidney Lumet, who’s been directing movies for half a century — long enough to know not to waste an opening scene. To be sure, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a study of repugnance, and the right impression to go in with must be something along the lines of “Ew.” But will it justify, in the end, having left us so cold?
Hoffman plays Andy Hanson, a slightly skuzzy, quasi-junkie real estate broker suffering from middle-class, middle-aged angst. “Nothing connects to anything else,” he confesses in a stupor to his silk-robed, sexually ambiguous heroin dealer. “I’m not the sum of my parts.”
“Get a shrink or a wife,” the dealer barks back, almost as if embarrassed by the eruption of speechmaking in playwright and first-time screenwriter Kelly Masterson’s script. Well, Andy has the wife already — that would be Ms. Tomei — and yes, there are problems. For instance, she’s also sleeping with his younger brother, Hank. Had Andy known this (and, for that matter, had he heeded that advice about the shrink), he might not have decided to take up larceny, and to enlist Hank, who’s played with squirrelly urgency by Ethan Hawke, in a grim, fateful scheme. But then there’d be no movie.
The target is a suburban strip-mall jewelry store, unremarkable except in that it’s owned and operated by their parents. Perfect, Andy says: They already know the lay of the land, the combination to the safe, the schedule — Mom and Dad (Rosemary Harris and Albert Finney) won’t even be there at the zero hour. Nobody’ll get hurt. Insurance will cover it. Victimless crime.
Ya think? For these two, a criminal caper is ill-advised. Yet they have their pat motives; Hank’s include being called a baby all the time by his family, and Amy Grant in a thankless part as his nagging ex, who shouts some variation on “Pay your fuckin’ child support!” in all of her scenes. Andy’s include a heavy burden of loveless low expectations from the same family (OK, let’s admit it’s not a great family), and the status anxiety that every tragic protagonist needs.
Yes, the filmmakers want you to know this is a tragedy. In case that chilly, doughy sex weren’t enough, and the violence later, there’s Hank’s brief glimpse of his daughter on stage, intoning the rueful closing lines of King Lear. Shakespeare, Sophocles, some tarnished derivation thereof that’s been warmed over for prime-time cable TV, whatever; as long as you appreciate the regal fatalism of it all.
Live TV, by the way, was Lumet’s proving ground, and it’s probably safe to say he paved the way for all the cop procedurals and gritty urban melodramas that now seem to have obviated him.
Maybe that’s why he’s adopted a trendily non-linear narrative approach, upending the chronological sequence of events. Or maybe it’s to say something about how grief and guilt spiral around each other. The movie manages clockwork efficiency, but its Tarantino-style story jigsaw only distracts from what this director already does so well.
The real drama — of people struggling at once to contain themselves and to slough off self-degrading circumstances — offers moments of terrific precision. As when Hank stands absently at his medicine cabinet in the middle of the night and dumps a whole bottle of pills into his hand. Could this be the only way out? Or when Andy’s marriage officially comes apart — in a protracted standoff between his recessive resignation and her half-incensed, half-mortified expectation that he’ll at least help carry her luggage out the door. It’s Tomei’s most alluringly naked scene, and one in which she’s fully clothed.
Lumet seems neither a moralist nor a satirist now, and in fact so workmanlike that you can’t really call him a stylist. That doesn’t leave much. What’s impressive about Devil, which is not to say satisfying, is that its maker remains crafty enough to make ambivalence seem declarative.