The Last Picture Show: Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, by Craig Schroeder
The Last Picture Show is a recurring Battleship Pretension column that reviews and examines the last films of a given director, actor, cinematographer, etc. as a means of exploring their filmography as a whole.
When Sidney Lumet died in 2011 he had averaged nearly a film a year in the time between his first (1957’s 12 Angry Men) and last feature. In one of cinema’s more prolific careers (illustrious enough to warrant this column limit itself to his more seminal works rather than attempt to examine every nuance in his filmography), Lumet’s final film, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, is an inconspicuous thriller that snuck its way into theaters on the same weekend as high-profile Oscar lures Juno and Atonement (which combined for an insane—and fairly depressing—eleven nominations). And in a year that produced more prestige cinema than any year in my lifetime (sorry 1999 and a sizable portion of Battleship Pretension readers), Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead doesn’t seem to hold its own in conversations about the best films of that year. But Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a slick, smart, gutting thriller; and more over it’s a summation of Lumet’s career long exploration of masculinity, morality and how the two frequently come into direct conflict.
Andy (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Hank (Ethan Hawke) are brothers, both in need of some quick cash; Andy is on the brink of financial ruin when his dirty business dealings threaten to come to light and Hank is a divorced dad, struggling to make child support payments. Andy convinces Hank to knock over their parent’s jewelry store, promising zero casualties and no major repercussions to their parent’s livelihood. But when Andy fucks up—as he is wont to do—the brothers have zero money and a mortally wounded mother. The robbery happens in the opening scene and by using a disjointed narrative structure that jumps from character to character, pre and post robbery, Lumet asks the characters and the audience to weigh the moral and ethical implications of their decisions from every angle (Lumet’s penchant for examining morality and ethics came full-circle early in his career with his 1960 Americanized television adaptation of Kurosawa’s timeless 1950 film Rashomon).
Though he directed nearly fifty feature films, Sidney Lumet wrote only five of them. Written by Kelly Masterson—who would go on to write Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer and the television adaptation of Killing Kennedy (based on the fetishistic book series of death biographies by political pundit and noted loofah enthusiast Bill O’Reilly)—Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a story of simple ideas made intricate by greedy, complicated men. Lumet is a director drawn to taut character studies (with some notable exceptions, as 1978’s The Wiz is quite fun but isn’t exactly an intimate examination of the human condition), wherein momentous plot points—such as 12 Angry Men’s perfectly crafted knife scene—aren’t nearly as important to the story as they are to the character’s psyche and ethical and moral development. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is similar, seemingly dispensing with the film’s most “exciting” scene first, then jumping back and forth to examine the toll it takes on everyone involved (a similar tactic used in 1973’s Serpico, wherein the fallout of the scene’s climax, which sees Detective Frank Serpico shot in the face, is revealed first). And for a director inclined to character studies and human interactions, Lumet has worked with some of the best character actors of the twentieth century, including Hoffman (whose legacy has been firmly cemented) and Hawke (who still seems to be fighting for legitimacy despite being a reliable actor for nearly three decades).
As Lumet only has a handful of films in which a female is the out-and-out lead (other than 1999’s Gloria, 1993’s Guilty As Sin and the aforementioned The Wiz, I’d be hard-pressed to think of another Lumet picture anchored by a female performance), the most glaring flaw in his filmography is that women are often an afterthought, if they are even a thought at all. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead—which treats its female characters as navigational buoys to keep the plot on track—is a prime example of Lumet’s male-centric narratives. Actresses with serious chops—Amy Ryan, Marisa Tomei and Rosemary Harris (that’s two Aunt May’s for those of you keeping track)—are sidelined in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, offering great performances in menial, thankless roles. And what’s left when women are removed from Lumet’s movies are films that—intentionally or not—tend to examine the traditional masculine hero archetypes and the paradoxic danger and fragility of toxic masculinity. 12 Angry Men sees an investigation into different types of masculine heroes in Hollywood, ultimately deciding that a man of moral fortitude will always win against the confidence of a man tenured in manufactured masculinity or the naïveté of young men too eager to prove their virility. But Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead has no such moral compass, taking two conflicting, amoral archetypes and pitting them against one another: Andy, a man steeped in misdirected elements of traditional masculinity, and Hank, a beta eager to hide his insecurities behind a weak veneer of masculine ideals.
The men in Lumet’s films tend to exist on two opposite ends of the spectrum: the alpha male who commands the room (Juror 8 in 12 Angry Men or Vin Diesel’s Jackie DiNorscio in 2006’s Find Me Guilty) or the put-upon lug at the end of his rope (Howard Beale in Network or Sonny Wortzik in Dog Day Afternoon). Most protagonists in Sidney Lumet films drift toward the “good” quadrant of a classical character alignment test—be it neutral (Frank Galvin, The Verdict), chaotic (Sonny Wortzik, Dog Day Afternoon) or lawful (Hercule Poirot, Murder on the Orient Express). Whereas Juror 8 is an alpha whose interests line up with the lawful good in the universe, Howard Beale is a different kind of protagonist, a force of chaotic good who isn’t eloquent or predictable but is ultimately a driving force for positivity. But Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead sees a shift towards the evil quadrant of character alignments. Andy, a lawfully evil character, respects and acknowledges the governing rules of the world but is willing and able to bypass them for his own benefit. While Hank, a neutral evil character, is not an active reprobate (besides sleeping with his brother’s wife) but is more than willing to be a passive participant to immoral deeds.
Known for his cynical purview—Network being one of the century’s more cynical films—cynicism for Lumet is less a societal critique than it is an unstoppable force that not only can but all but certainly will shape every aspect of a character’s life. Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is no different, it doesn’t present a moral question; instead, it offers the logical extension of what happens when money, sex and greed ultimately corrupt absolutely. The characters that exist within Lumet’s cynical world are either active forces for good (The Verdict, Serpico, 12 Angry Men) or they are forced to reckon their morality with more iniquitous urges (Dog Day Afternoon, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead). When active moral forces are inserted in Lumet’s world, the audience is left with a semblance of hope. But when men like Andy and Hank—men who should know better—walk onto the screen in a Sidney Lumet picture, the world is little more than a portrait of the bleak expanse of humanity’s inevitable ugliness.