x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Take it to the limit

DVD review Raymond Beauchemin finds out that the devil is always one step ahead.

The title of this 2007 film is the second half of a blessing of sorts: May you be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows you're dead. In Sidney Lumet's latest movie, the devil is checking his watch. Andy Hanson is on his way. Played to crisp perfection by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Andy is a drug-addicted, impotent real estate accountant who honestly believes money will get him and his beautiful wife, Gina (Marisa ­Tomei), back to Brazil, where life was easy and good. "I'm a smart guy; I'll figure it out," he tells his wife when she asks exactly how he plans to regain paradise.

Another saying goes: money is the root of all evil. Andy, in a Mephistophelian manner, coaxes his weak younger brother, Hank (Ethan Hawke), into robbing a mom-and-pop jewellery store. It is their parents' store, one into which Charles Hanson (Albert Finney) had sunk his whole life. But Hank is a coward who has a friend do the job. Only the friend, and Hank and Andy's mother, end up dead. Andy, smart guy that he is, comes up with another scheme. The devil, however, is one step ahead.

In the DVD's making-of featurette, Lumet describes the movie as a melodrama and not a suspense thriller. He defines drama as a movie in which character determines the story. In melodrama, he says, the story determines the character. In Before the Devil Knows You're Dead Lumet and Kelly Masterson, a former seminarian and a first-time screenwriter, have placed characters in a situation much for the same reason a boy might pull the wings off a fly: to watch it struggle. Lumet has mined this territory before, in 12 Angry Men, Network, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon: characters are pushed to their limits and forced to reveal their inner core.

Films generally have a moral code even if the characters in them do not. The medium requires the viewer to identify with a character. When the character is despicable, the viewer-protagonist relationship becomes a source of tension and unease. Because Andy's core is as hollow as a rolled-up bank note and Hank is essentially a frightened lemming, it is not easy to attach one's self emotionally to them. It is one of the strengths of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead that shifts in time and changes in point of view force the viewer to evaluate and judge characters over and over again as new information is revealed.

It is not until we meet Charles Hanson, the father, that we have someone to identify with. We feel complete sympathy for a man who has just lost his wife to a violent crime and who is frustrated by police inaction. The character is not without his edge, however, which evolves as the movie arcs towards its final act. A diamond cutter tells Charles at one point: "The world is an evil place. Some of us make money off it; others are destroyed."

If this is true, the devil must have us on timers.