Friday, November 09, 2007


The Devil's Reject

By Odienator
Quentin Tarantino can teach Sidney Lumet a thing or two about directing. And yes, my subject and object are in the proper places in that sentence. For better and worse, the short, meteoric rise of QT ushered in the still-active era of movies being told out of sequence, or in multiple and parallel flashbacks, for no reason whatsoever. Tarantino usually is able to pull it off because his direction embraces the fractured narrative, builds upon it and uses it to his full advantage. It's as if the film knows the flashbacks are coming or its sequence is out of order, and it adjusts accordingly without breaking its hold on the viewer. It doesn't announce FLASHBACK in giant capital letters. That's the lesson Sidney Lumet could learn from QT, because in Before The Devil Knows You're Dead, whenever the amateurish screenplay decides to go backward, Lumet announces it with incredibly annoying Pokemon-style screen flashing. It tosses the viewer right out of the movie.

Sondheim wrote "you gotta have a gimmick" and while that always works for strippers, it doesn't always work for film. Lumet builds tension so carefully in some scenes that the sudden announcement of flashbacks let all the air out of the balloon. Compare this to his devastating use of flashbacks in The Pawnbroker. There is absolutely no reason for the story to be told in this fashion, outside of sheer laziness and the screenwriter's knowledge that his script, if told straight, would have been no different than 8,000 other scripts with this same story. Yet Lumet's direction is so good at times that I felt he could have made this work without the gimmicks. The screenplay would still be just as derivative and unbelievable, but we would have been too busy being strangled by suspense to notice. This film just doesn't build the way it should have. It stops and starts like a traffic light-ridden NASCAR race. The herky-jerky back and forth gives far too much time to contemplate the numerous questions that derail the film's hold on the viewer.

In the screenplay chapter of his must-read book, Making Movies, Lumet writes:
"In a well made drama, I want to feel: 'Of course — that's where it was heading all along.' And yet the inevitability mustn't eliminate surprise. There's not much point in spending two hours on something that became clear in the first five minutes. Inevitability doesn't mean predictability. The script must still keep you off balance, keep you surprised, entertained, involved, and yet, when the denouement is reached, still give you the sense that the story had to turn out that way."

This is a very telling paragraph from Lumet. Is this film's construction a blatant attempt to stave off predictability without losing inevitability? And is this the reason why so many movies have flirted with the "off-balance" device of the non-linear gimmick? I really don't see much difference: if it's inevitable, then you can predict it's going to happen. This isn't as bad an idea as slowing down and hacking up your movie until the viewer can meditate on how illogical the story is.

Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the financially strapped eldest son of Charles (Albert Finney) and Nanette (Rosemary Harris). Between his drug addiction and his golddigger trophy wife, Gina (Marisa Tomei), Andy's wallet is screaming for help. To silence the noise, Andy has also been stealing money from payroll. Andy's younger brother Hank (Ethan Hawke) has money problems of his own: he can't pay his child support and his angry ex-wife Martha (Amy Ryan) is threatening him with court action. When he can't pay for his daughter's trip to The Lion King, he allows himself to be taken in by Andy's plan to help them both achieve hakuna matata. They decide to rob their Mom and Pop's Mom and Pop Jewelry Store — or rather, Andy decides Hank should do it — so that they can get quick cash and their parents can collect the insurance money that will result from the robbery. "It's a victimless crime," Andy says, using that bullying, manipulative manner we older brothers employ so well.

Of course, the robbery goes awry, and the primary reason for this is that Andy is, to use the film's love of the f-word, a fucking idiot. Hank's an idiot as well, but Andy knows not only this fact but also how wimpy Hank is in general. He assigns Hank the job, telling him to use a fake gun, and Hank instead gets a more hardened criminal (Brian F. O'Byrne from Frozen) to pull the job. Suffice it to say, the crime's not victimless, and O'Byrne winds up as dead as the victim he shoots in the heist.

As the brothers' world comes tumbling down, they make one inevitable mistake after another. They have to deal with Hank's ineptitude and Andy's horse addiction, their father's compulsive desire to find out who robbed his store and caused the carnage, the secrets that threaten to tear their fraternal love apart, and the women who drive them to do and say the darndest things. It sounds compelling, but the film's construction is far too distracting to be effective. And the questions that arise just nag at the viewer in the dark. Are these guys really in that much trouble that they need to resort to a jewelry heist? Why not Andy instead of wishy-washy Hank? How did Andy suddenly morph from Pillsbury Yuppie to Chuck Bronson? Why would Hank rent a car, effectively creating a paper trail, to do a robbery? If you have that much dope and dough in your house, wouldn't you have something besides a punk-ass revolver? Wouldn't an autopsy show that you smothered someone to death? Why steal from your job's payroll box when you know you're being audited? Why didn't the job call the cops on Andy? I could go on and on.

A film such as Before the Devil Knows You're Dead needs the kind of suspension of disbelief continuity of a film like To Catch a Thief or the film I wish this movie could have been: Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan. On occasion, Lumet reaches for the greatness he is known for, which makes the film's overall failure even more frustrating. Watch how he visually constructs an outdoor scene between Hoffman and Finney. Just the placement of the characters alone speaks volumes, making the stilted dialogue that pollutes the scene completely unnecessary. Observe how he visually plays out the scenes that depict Hank's criminal seduction by Andy. The robbery itself has incredible tension and an almost existential visual quality; it's as mean and lean as the rest of the film thinks it is.

Lumet's biggest failures usually stem from a lousy script or miscast performers (I'm looking at you, Miss Ross, in The Wiz). Before the Devil Knows You're Dead has both. Until his last reel gunplay, which does not work at all, Hoffman is a credibly smarmy creature with daddy issues and a wife he (correctly) thinks is out of his league. Ethan Hawke is so woefully miscast that it's painful to watch him. Albert Finney is wasted, but Rosemary Harris is interesting and far more credible with a gun than her cinematic son. Michael Shannon leaves an impressive mark on his limited screen time, as does Amy Ryan, and O'Byrne brings an expert's menace to his sacrificial role that can be used as a measuring stick for the brothers' amateur night at the criminal Apollo.

Marisa Tomei's character is one note and should have been accompanied by Whodini's "I'm a Ho" every time she appeared on the screen. Her sole purpose in the film is to show the naked body far too many critics are panting over, as if they've never seen tits and ass before. These are the same critics who have the nerve to be offended by the sex scene between her and Hoffman that opens the film, as if his far-from perfect (yet oddly film critic-like) body ruins their Tomei spank-bank entry and offends their sensibilities. I saw it as a harbringer of the film's dysfunction: it's superbly shot and visually arresting, but the content of the scene itself is not worth watching. Interestingly enough, it's the one stand alone scene in the picture (i.e., we don't know where it fits in with the rest of the timeline, short of assuming it comes before the film's story). It also tells us everything we need to know about the characters without saying a word.

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I've not seen "Better the Devil..." or read the whole of your post (I look forward to doing both, in that order and very soon) - but I wholeheartedly agree with scrapping the pointless-clumsy-flashback-device that's become so fashionable with Hollywood films of late. It's usually redundant and barely forgivable in genre films. But in prestige dramas - like House of Sand and Fog, Michael Clayton, Letters from Iwo Jima, Spanglish (not a drama, but close enough), Saving Private Ryan - it's almost always redundant and completely unforgivable. The flashback setup contributes nothing to these kinds of films, not even the crudely forced sense of poignancy the directors are aiming for. And when it's there to make something implausible feel inevitable, that doesn't work either.
The flashback setup contributes nothing to these kinds of films, not even the crudely forced sense of poignancy the directors are aiming for.

Flashbacks usually don't bother me too much when they serve as the memories of one of the characters in the film, or are dramatically relevant to the story (like in a whodunit). But when the entire movie is crafted with these flashbacks and flashforwards for no reason other than to stack the deck for the conclusion, it's cheating. I'm not sure if it's poignancy the filmmakers are aiming for; I think they're going for "originality." Sure, my film was about a jewel heist gone wrong, but I told it in 17 twisty flashbacks! That makes it NEW! No, that makes it LAZY!!!

I liked Michael Clayton, but I agree with you that the flashback structure was completely unnecessary. It's there to hide flaws in the script. Movies like 21 Grams and Before The Devil are the worst examples of this because they completely lose the power of their stories. Lumet could have built this movie's tension to the breaking point had the events unfolded linearly. If he were going to hop around at inopportune moments, why even build tension? Why not make us anticipate the flashbacks by making them dramatically relevant? Imagine Psycho with Vera Miles going down to see Mrs. Bates, and as soon as she's about to turn the chair around, we flashback to "thirty years earlier" when Mrs. Bates was alive and in her room. Or as soon as the shower curtain flies open, we see Janet Leigh scream, then flashback to her robbing her boss. Wouldn't that shit be irritating?

Maybe what made Pulp Fiction so great is that the movie ends in the middle of its story, yet it feels like the perfect moment to end the movie. It feels earned.
Yes that shit would be very irritating - and that's precisely the kind of shit that contemporary Hollywood hipsters would pull. And I'm really curious about the kind of reasoning that would drive them to do that.

When I was talking about forced poignancy though, I didn't mean the genre films so much as the ponderous dramas - like House of Sand and Fog - that begin with a glimpse of the ending for no reason whatsoever, then flashback to the beginning and start the story for real.

(And I also liked Michael Clayton - I just felt that the flashback structure detracted from it.)
There is a long history of films starting at the end for no apparent reason. I never understood why David Lean started Lawrence of Arabia showing how he died in a motorcycle wreck years later. For those who weren't experts on the history of the real Lawrence, it eliminated a lot of suspense along the way. Epics tends to do that a lot. Gandhi starts with his assassination and then goes back.
I never realized that until you brought it up, Ed--you're right. Especially biographies: Raging Bull does. Yankee Doodle Dandy does. That Cole Porter movie, De-Saster, I mean De-Lovely does. I suppose the filmmakers assume you know what happened to the real-life characters, so they don't mind tipping their hands.

If a movie starts at the end and then flashes back, I can deal with that more than one that hops around for no dramatic reason other than to hop. After all, my two favorite movies of all time are both told in flashback.

Can you imagine how some great movies would have been ruined if they'd employed the "end of the movie first" and/or the "jump around the plot" tactic? Chinatown. The Crying Game. Carrie. Citizen Kane (Kane says Rosebud, then they cut to the last shot in the movie, then the movie begins...EEEEK!). Casablanca. And on and on...
I had read the first two lines of your review, and then stopped -- until I saw the movie. Which I finally got to do yesterday.

Wow, do we disagree!

Interesting you brought up "Citizen Kane," since I was thinking that that was the perfect example of a movie that starts at the end then plays with the timeline through the entire narrative, all done very, very effectively. "Pulp Fiction" does a great job playing with the timeline too, but whatever you might think, Tarrantino is no Lumet.

"Before the Devil..." doesn't start at the end, but in the middle, and the action (except Rio) is compressed to within a few days. It's possible the movie could have been told chronologically, but I don't know if it would have had the same impact as it did having the robbery at the front. It's the central moment of the story of the two brothers, and then seeing what led to it -- and what followed from it -- seemed to me a valid way of structuring the story. The robbery scene had a great visceral impact, but the film is much more a study of the characters, about what desperate people might do in desperate situations, about the dramas of a certain type of family (that seemed very real to me), about the impossibility of undoing the past.

Lumet's characters strike me as coming from real life, and the actors here are playing it hot, rather than cool, and they have a depth you don't get in too many movies. One example, Hoffman's scene in the Saab after leaving his father's: his father's apology was just not going to be enough to excuse all the hurts he had felt over the years. Not too much was said, but you can imagine the history the father and son had had.

I find gun violence in movies is too often played cool. Tarantino's oeuvre is Exhibit A, but it's true even in good movies like "American Gangster." In Lumet's movie, the guys using the guns are way over their heads. They seem like regular people, people I know. And they are desperate. Hoffman kills someone, and you see what happens to him. He becomes a killer. He can't find a way to stop the killing. That rings true, and compared to most movie killings, especially scary.
whatever you might think, Tarrantino is no Lumet.

Tarrantino is no Tarantino either.

I purposely constructed that first paragraph the way I did because I KNEW somebody would not read it thoroughly, then show up out here with a holier than thou "Tarantino is no Lumet." This despite the fact that I never said those words nor even implied them. I should have my own psychic network. If I had also predicted that Tarantino would be misspelled, Miss Cleo would have put a hit out on my ass.

What I did say was that if Lumet was going to make a movie where the screenplay jumped around for no valid reason, he could learn something from the way Tarantino does it.

As for the rest of your disagreement, you make some points that are well worth discussing.

It's possible the movie could have been told chronologically, but I don't know if it would have had the same impact as it did having the robbery at the front.

My problem isn't that the robbery (the film's best scene) is at the front. My problem is that the movie splinters all over the place after that. There's no need for the flash backs and fast forwards. It's a gimmick and the way Lumet employs it ruins the film's tension.

the film is much more a study of the characters, about what desperate people might do in desperate situations

I didn't see either of their situations as incredibly desperate. Hank is a deadbeat fool who won't pay his child support. Andy is a dope head with daddy issues and a penchant for five-fingered discounts from the office till, and a whore wife who gives no indication why she married Andy in the first place. What is there to study?

So much is wrong with this screenplay, which is why I keep complaining that the movie kept kicking me out of any tension that built up. Whenever things got compelling or interesting, FLASH FLASH FLASH went the screen, and we're someplace else. This may have worked for you, but it did not work for me. In the theater, the woman next to me yelled out "Not another fucking flashback!" I wanted to kiss her.

Opera is far from believable tragedy, but can still pull you in and powerfully engage you. I think if this film had been allowed to build, it would have had the same impact.

Not too much was said, but you can imagine the history the father and son had had.

That scene didn't work at all, and considering what Lumet has already told you visually, it's extraneous. A far better example of your point is the series of scenes where Hoffman uses his big brother tricks to seduce Hawke into the robbery. There's a lot going on there under the surface, and we're not given a scene commensurate to the Saab scene that hammers home the fraternal dysfunction.

I find gun violence in movies is too often played cool

Spoiler alert! I thought it was quite cool when Hoffman's cap got peeled by Shannon's sister, and when O'Byrne got the shit blown out of him and goes crashing through that window. Lumet's overhead camera angle wants you to find it cool too (and I did, so he did his job). Hoffman's awkward pillow holding would indicate he was a far worse shot than he turned out to be, and that entire sequence in the drug den is unbelievable. The drug dealer has one gun and opens the door for Andy while he has a customer. Didn't he tell Andy not to come when he had customers, that he would not let him in? I hate when I'm given a supposedly street smart character who does something completely betraying their criminal intelligence for the benefit of the story.

I can't argue with you about the characters feeling like people you know, but the people I know are smarter criminals. That may say a lot about me, but you don't get a moniker like odienator by being a choirboy.
I don't see why you think anything I said is "holier than thou." Odd you seem to have misread me since you seem so tweaked that somebody might have misread you. In any case, I happen to think Lumet's a better director than Tarantino. That's the way I see it. Which is what my post was about: my impression of the movie. You're entitled to your viewpoint. People see different things in movies. Happens all the time.

I never realized that misspelling someone's name in a comment on a blog here on the Internet could draw such a reaction. I suppose if I had predicted that a guy correcting my spelling would be using words like harbringer himself, I could have had Miss Cleo put a hit out on my ass too. But I'd rather pass.
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