Sidney Lumet’s human cesspool of murky madness
The still fully energized and prolific filmmaking legend, eighty three year old Sidney Lumet, is also far from set in his ways, if his latest work, the corrosive crime thriller Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, is any indication. Or perhaps it’s a case of reflecting a changing social canvas around him, one far more cynical today, and shaped by the corrupt influences of money and the raw greed so instrumental in obtaining and possessing it. Lumet’s passionate sense of human justice, ethical conviction and redemption in films like Twelve Angry Men, The Verdict and Network may have dampened with age, though his gift for delving into the darkest recesses of the defiling human soul that he once so boldly challenged, is as well honed as any of the younger filmmakers around.
The title of the film is taken from a traditional Irish drinking toast, “May you be in heaven half an hour, before the devil knows you’re dead.” And in a narrative devoid of any heroes, one might assess the title as long-winded, and excessive in its brutal pessimism. The story revolves around the caustic relationship between two bad seed siblings, elder Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a shady Manhattan businessman with a secret coke habit who is living way beyond his means and desperately in need of some quick cash, and younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke), a weak-willed whining loser also drowning in debt, that includes alimony and child support due to a nagging ex-wife and a financially needy young daughter. Andy hatches what he promotes as a foolproof plan to send gullible Hank to rob their parents’ strip mall mom ‘n pop jewelry store in suburban Westchester. Tragic complications arise when Hank wimps out and drags a bad news ex-con buddy into the heist without Andy’s knowledge or consent, and his felonious chum and elderly pistol packing Mom (Rosemary Harris) end up in a fierce, bloody shootout where they basically blow each other away.
Meanwhile, Andy’s bored and frustrated sexpot trophy wife (Marisa Tomei) has been meeting Hank on the sly for lurid afternoon love trysts in his seedy hovel. Eventually nearly, everyone seems to be betraying if not outright gunning after at least one other person, even dear old Dad (Albert Finney), with most of them shockingly, much too-close-for-comfort sharing the same gene pool.
Though crafted as a taut, effective dysfunctional family crime thriller with rarely a dull or distracting moment, the deadly, dehumanizing entanglements are endlessly vile and dreary, if not outright clinically depressing. Which leads to a single clear thought about the human cesspool of all this murky madness. Namely, what’s the point? Sorry Sid, but I liked you a whole lot better when you stood for a few important things, like moral outrage against assorted social injustices, rather than conceding to these negative forces and essentially wallowing in them.
2 out of 4 stars