Sidney Lumets's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
Capitol Films (2007)

Sidney Lumet’s new film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, has been praised by the mainstream critics, most lavishly by Robert Koehler, in the Christian Science Monitor, who called it “one of the great American films of the past decade” and the “crowning masterpiece of Lumet’s long career.”

Lumet’s career is long indeed. The 83-year-old director got his start as a child actor in Yiddish theater where his father was a star. He later founded an acting studio for people who were fed up with the Lee Strasberg method. His first Hollywood film was the 1957 classic Twelve Angry Men (with Henry Fonda), and many other critical and commercial successes followed: The Verdict with Paul Newman, Dog Day Afternoon with Al Pacino, Network with Peter Finch. He has directed seventeen actors and actresses in Oscar-nominated performances. But there has been no signature to Lumet’s films, no obvious cinematic masterpiece (his greatest talent may be in getting great performances from his actors), and no Oscar for best director or best film. Over the past fifteen years he seemed to have been on a declining trajectory. The Academy awarded him its “consolation” Oscar for lifetime achievement in 2005, no doubt assuming that he was finished.

Now he is back. Devil has revitalized his fifty-year Hollywood career, which now includes a new three-picture deal.

What critics emphasize in their praise for Devil is that the octogenarian’s comeback is thoroughly contemporary. It is billed as a crime thriller and family tragedy tied up in a postmodern package that reveals its characters by circling back in time. If that were not enough to intrigue me, a friend who had seen the film said that Marisa Tomei’s naked body was worth the price of admission.

The body of the 43-year-old actress is in fact a wonder, and whether it is a natural blessing or a miracle of plastic surgery, her casual and splendid nakedness is a major ingredient of Lumet’s modernity. That’s not all. The film begins with a graphic sex scene that proclaims Devil contemporary—contemporary because we exist in a popular culture in which the obscene and the pornographic are almost inescapable features of our everyday experience. Once we have watched the opening scene—the flabby Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Andy Hanson takes the perfect Marisa Tomei from behind—we know this must be a film for the 21st century.

The scene was Lumet’s invention but he deserves credit for much more than that, including the film’s impressive ensemble cast. After the venerable Albert Finney signed on as the elderly father of the ill-fated Hanson family, others eagerly followed him: Philip Seymour Hoffman as the eldest son, Andy; Ethan Hawke as the youngest son, Hank; and Marisa Tomei as Andy’s wife, Gina. Under Lumet’s guidance, they played their characters to the hilt. And it took marvelous acting—indeed overacting—to make Devil engage the audience. For by including no character with whom the audience can positively identify, this film violates an axiom of Hollywood and melodrama. We are witnesses to a tragedy that does not even ask for our sympathy.

Both the performances and Lumet’s reconception of the screenplay account for the film’s emotional impact. The screenwriter Kelly Masterson’s script languished for seven years before it fell into Lumet’s hands. The original plot involved buddies who plan a jewelry store heist that goes tragically wrong. From that opening, the film was to move backward in time to what led each of the characters up to that event. They were to be ordinary people who keep doing stupid things that deepen their trouble. Lumet turned the buddies into brothers, and the screenplay now had a deeper psychological dimension.

Lumet’s Hanson family is a Freudian nightmare, yet the Freudian passions remain largely in the background. This should not be surprising: contemporary American cinema is much less Freudian than it once was, and Lumet has been more of a slice-of-life social psychologist, never plunging very deeply into the psyches of his characters. In my two favorite Lumet films, Twelve Angry Men and The Verdict, both legal-moral fables, we never learn why Henry Fonda’s character is so determined to see justice done or how Paul Newman, a recovering-alcoholic lawyer, perseveres against all odds. In Devil, Lumet does not cycle back to childhood to explore the Freudian Devil of the Hanson-family dynamics. Those dynamics simply explode onto the screen in the course of the film. We don’t learn the back story of the Hanson family and the trauma that made them who they are. But they are recognizable human beings, extraordinary only because they are capable of doing the hateful things to one another that most of us can only imagine on our worst days.

What is surprisingly absent from Lumet’s film is the gritty social and ethnic realism of his genre films, such as Dog Day Afternoon and Devil. Having made the Hansons a family we will come to despise, Lumet dances around their ethnic identity. The title of his film comes from a traditional Irish toast, “may you be in heaven half an hour Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” but Hanson is a Scandinavian name, not an Irish one. Can we imagine a Scandinavian Charles Hanson starting as a diamond cutter on 47th Street in New York and working his way up so he can move his family to Westchester and open a mom-and-pop jewelry store in the local mall? If Lumet had insisted on the ethnic realism of 47th Street, Hanson would have been Horowitz with a kippah, and Devil would have been seen as stridently anti-Semitic. Instead Lumet airbrushes away any identifiable ethnicity. At best, this says something about the kind of filmmaker Lumet is: a man willing to compromise and a cinematic master of bricolage, improvising as he goes along and allowing his actors to fill out their characters rather than starting with a rigid plan and insisting they conform. In his book on filmmaking, he describes each day’s shooting as the creation of a tile that he hopes will, in the end, fit into a mosaic. Devil feels very much as though it were made in that way.

The film opens with Andy and his wife Gina vacationing in Brazil. Their sex life and their marriage are both in trouble: they are unable to achieve sexual intimacy. When we first see them they are loudly and clearly moving toward orgasm together. As the camera moves alongside them we see that Andy is focused not just on his beautiful wife but also on the full-length mirror on the wall. He has added the thrill of voyeurism and is delighted by the result: so, apparently, is his wife. Why, he wonders out loud, is it so good here when back in the city it does not work? We will learn as the film evolves that husband and wife have secret lives they do not share with each other. He is an embezzler and a drug addict who has a lot on his mind. She is a woman who needs most of all to be sexually desired and is carrying on an affair with Andy’s younger brother, Hank. The couple enacts the culture of pornography in their search for orgasm with or without intimacy, always on the edge of collapsing into narcissistic gratification or masochistic surrender. Andy’s postcoital chat for some unexplained reason offends his wife and the moment of intimacy ends.

The next moment takes us from contemporary sex to contemporary violence—the tragic event the screenwriter originally imagined as the first scene. At a Westchester strip mall, almost deserted in the early morning, we witness the holdup of the mom-and-pop jewelry store. After a series of blunders, the masked robber and the mom end up shooting and killing each other. From these bleak opening moments of sex and violence, we follow Charles Hanson and his sons each to their personal hells.

Throughout Lumet keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. This is not a Rashomon story where each character’s version of the events leaves us uncertain as to what really happened. Here each perspective deepens our understanding of the awful and ill-fated Hansons. Andy, though totally alienated from his family, still feels cheated of his father’s love and respect and sees his brother Hank as the spoiled baby of the family. He plans the robbery of his parents’ store, and he cajoles and cons Hank into carrying out the plan. In his mind the plan is brilliant: he will get the inheritance he deserves, by stealing it; his younger brother will do the dirty work; and because the store is insured, the crime will be victimless. With his share of the money he will go back to Rio with Gina—Brazil has no extradition treaty—and start a new life of good sex.

Andy’s plan has a Freudian dynamic, the enraged Oedipal child will get revenge on his unloving father and use the baby who displaced him to do it. But Hank, though he agrees to the plan, only drives the car and gets a real thug to do the robbery. And although he planned the heist for a morning when his mother would not be there, on this fatal day she is.

We learn exactly what happened as each Hanson does. First Charles Hanson discovers that the wife he loves and the only person he cares about is dead, but he does not yet know as we do that his sons are responsible. The funeral is awful and unforgettable, with the father overcome by grief and his sons by guilt. Lumet’s film turns the knife in every psychological wound. We are fascinated and repelled as the horror deepens and the violence grows more desperate. The plot is complicated and there are moments when one is overcome by disbelief. But under Lumet’s direction, Devil carries on with the intensity of a primal myth. When Charles Hanson murders his eldest son it is as though the Oedipal father has walked out of the Greek myth and finally taken revenge. The mythical resonance may save the film from nihilism, even as the sadly desperate sex and gratuitous violence make Lumet’s Devil all too recognizably contemporary.