Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

It is rather suprising and more than a little depressing to realize how few American directors seem concerned with the way their films look. After self-conscious aesthetes like David Gordon Green and Todd Haynes, the felt absence of a middle-ground of visually attuned directors presents a very real problem for this country's cinema. Even adventurous filmmakers like Todd Solondz seem surprisingly unconcerned with the visual component of their work. So, it comes as no surprise to see critics completely overlook Sidney Lumet's bland and uninspired visual conception in their rush to bestow undeserved accolades on his latest film Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. It seems aesthetics are no longer a critical criterion, as the working reviewer, forced to sit through so many uninspired film products, has become resigned to an unreedmingly drab vision of the world projected onto the screen and has, as if by special agreement, consented to limit his discussion to the other aspects of a given work. After all, the reviewer can't write the same thing every time out. He must develop a certain critical attitude towards mediocrity that allows him to carry out his quotidian task. Yet, when an American film comes along that is even a slight improvement on the commonplace, it is hailed as a masterpiece. Leaving aesthetic considerations aside, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a somewhat absorbing moral drama that falls far short of its epic ambitions. But to suggest that Lumet's latest film is anything more than passable entertainment is to acknowledge the failure of the American cinema by rewarding work that is so far less than the finest the medium is capable of.

The film tells the story of a botched robbery, staged by two brothers (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) on their parents' jewelry store, an undertaking that results in the accidental death of their mother, as well as the aftermath of the event, as their insufficiently detailed plans crumble through a series of mounting miscalculations. The film announces its ambitions early on, when the daughter of Ethan Hawke's character acts out the role of Edgar in a high school production of King Lear, a work with which the film seems anxious to draw significant parallels. Apart from the narrative similarities between the film and the play, Lumet here serves notice of his intention to recreate something of Shakespeare's epic achievement. The film aspires to not merely the nihilism of Lear, but to its tragic grandeur as well. The betrayal by one's own children, the central plot pivot of each work is, however, not in itself sufficient to achieve a true sense of the tragic; it is what happens after the betrayal that matters. In Lumet's film, the brothers try desperately to cover their tracks as a series of unexpected complications arise, the most significant of which is their father's discovery that his sons are responsible for their mother's death, a discovery that prompts him towards a filicidal revenge. The problem is that this revenge is neither as shocking nor as devastating as Lumet believes it to be. As the director lingers over the moment, introducing complications to prolong the scene, adding swirling strings to the soundtrack and concluding the scene with a fade out to white, we are asked to view this final action as a gesture of great moral significance, whereas it registers as merely the last in a series of rather absurd complications that follow from the robbery, reminiscent of the similarly absurd entanglements that resulted from the robbery attempt in the director's earlier Dog Day Afternoon. But, whereas in that film, Lumet was able to treat the situation with a certain absurdist humor, here he falters under the weight of his seriousness. The botched robbery is a situation that lends itself far more easily to a comic rather than a tragic treatment and the relative successes of Lumet's two films point up the difficulty of handling such material without a leavening layer of humor (excepting a single scene where an impossibly nervous Ethan Hawke attempts to retrieve a CD he left in a rental car). This is not to say that any material cannot be treated in any number of ways, simply that Lumet's handling of the later film's dramatic unfolding fails to adequately support his larger ambitions.

The film is further hampered by its decision to tell its story non-sequentially, a narrative device that can often add a unique perspective to a work of art, but one that must carry its own justification. Here, the splintered narrative serves only to add a level of suspense to the film, as it forces the viewer to piece together the constituent elements of the plot (presumably this is what some critics meant when they insisted that the film made audiences work), but it would seem to distract from Lumet's true concerns, since the real question the film asks is not what happened, but what significance (or rather lack of significance) can be read into the resultant events. Ultimately, the events are completely meaningless, which is indeed Lumet's point, but this point would be better taken if the narrative was presented unemphatically or set off with a dose of absurdist humor rather than everywhere weighted with a forbidding import. The director's final insistence on the dramatic quality of his material, given ultimate expression in the film's last scene, fails to raise the work to the level of the tragic, but it has the unfortunate consequence of undercutting the director's nihilistic reading of his own film. It is as if he wanted it to have it both ways, to pay lip service to the notion that the world is meaningless and all humanity corrupt, but then to acknowledge a meaning by calling on a conventional attitude to his material that treats the events as constituent elements of a grand modern tragedy freighted with great emotional and moral weight. That King Lear was able to achieve this sense of the tragic in the face of an ultimately meaningless universe is a tribute to the remarkable breadth of vision of Shakespeare's conception. Lumet's attempts to implement something of this contradictory program should not be held against him - after all most directors try for too little - but his inability to fulfill his ambitions combined with his unconcern for his film's visual program mark Before the Devil Knows You're Dead as considerably less than a full-fledged success. That the film is more engaging than the average Hollywood product doesn't make it a masterpiece; it must still be assessed on its own dubious merits.


PVLGO said...

Just saw it last night and I agree--it is no masterpiece. Yet I think Lumet does have a clear visual plan: note, for example, the close-up shots of red, gray, wrinkled faces (so full of pathos, alas!), and the rather uncinematic camera angles that so often seem to want to give viewer the impression that he or she is in the room with the characters. Of course, whether that plan works is a different question. Also, you say that the final scene is the last of a series of absurd events. This may be true, but that does not mean that the final scene is not significant. As I seet it, the father kills his son not for revenge but to spare everyone further pain. Just think of what would or could happen if the son lived.

andrew schenker said...

Perhaps there is some consistency in the types of shots that Lumet lines up, but I don't know if it qualifies as a well-thought out visual program. He certainly doesn't seem concenred with providing any aesthetic satisfaction.

I'm not saying that the final scene is not significant and it may in fact be necessary to bring closure to the film's plotting, but the overdramatic touches that Lumet adds to the scene seem to indicate that he wishes us to regard this as the culmination of a grand tragedy of Lear-like proportions, as well as a startling act of filicide, rather than simply the last in a series of complications arising from a poorly considered plan. A more matter-of-fact presentation of the final action (without those ridiculous strings) would confirm the lack of any inherent meaning in the film's events, an interpretation that Lumet seems to wish to communicate, but which he undercuts with his exaggerated staging of the last scene.

PVLGO said...

Clearly he does have a visual plan or program, but, as I said, it does not necessarily work in the film's favor. I could say that this plan or program does not seem "well-thought out" and I'd be saying more or less the same thing. Now, can one be sure that Lumet wants to create a tragedy of the Shakespearean sort? The reference to Lear could be there to establish a contrast instead of a parallel. Plus, the contrived and absurd events do not necessarily preclude a tragic meaning, or do they? Anyway, all this is just for argument's sake and I should stop there. The plot in and of itself leaves a lot of room for interpretation but I won’t bother any further with a film that is so mediocre in nearly every other respect.

andrew schenker said...

I don't think the inclusion of Lear is to create a constrast at all. Lumet's heavy-handed staging of his final scene and his final fade to white (perhaps recalling the sense of a final Judgement with which Lear ends)seem to precisely indicate that we are supposed to regard this scene as being full of tragic significance. The events themselves don't preclude a tragic meaning, but such a meaning seems at odds with the film's essentially nihilistic attitude which seems to suggest (at least until the end) that the events are not to be regarded as having any meaning, tragic or otherwise.