Friday, October 24, 2008

Before The Devil Knows You're Dead

I am a longtime fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman. My first recollection of his work was his portrayal of a Med School student in Patch Adams. Hoffman played an intense character under self-induced stress from his efforts to follow in his father’s footsteps. In this film, Hoffman’s relationship with his father is strained at best. However, the intensity and instability that he brings to his characters was artistically evident in Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead. Hoffman (as the lead character, Andy Hanson) easily carried this film with a tremendous performance.

Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead tells the story of a two brothers who don’t have the best relationship. The older brother (Hoffman) has an overbearing intense personality that he plies against the younger brother, Charles Hanson (Ethan Hawke). The chemistry between these two characters shows an imbalance that provides an early indicator or family dysfunction. This is confirmed when we discover Andy’s plan to rob their parents jewelry store. Andy delegates the dirty work to Charles, who seems incompetent in the simplest of tasks. Andy employs the assistance of a thuggish friend named Bobby Lasorda (Brian F. O’Byrne). Charles and Bobby undertake this task with amazing ineptitude leading to disastrous results. The fallout from this botched robbery peels back the layers of dysfunction in the family, revealing all of the ugly scars that have been hidden. The interaction of the characters reveals hidden secrets, grudges and the unraveling of whatever fabric was still holding the family tenuously together.

Kelly Masterson put together an exceptional screenplay. The success of the screenplay hinged on the Directing, which Sidney Lumet conducted flawlessly. The film reminded me a lot of something Quentin Tarantino would produce. The story begins with rough intercourse and nudity…just to get your attention. The movie then moves immediately to the point that would be the climax in most other movies. After providing details of the central incident in this film, we begin flashing back and picking up important pieces of the puzzle. We start with the what and then begin examining the why. This examination is conducted through a series of overlapping snippets. As the past catches up with a version of events we have already witnessed, the camera angle changes providing a different perspective on events we already know about. In this manner, the story evolves in a jerky manner. This technique could have been weak and distracting. Done right, it was fresh and interesting. The dialogue between the characters was strong and direct. The language provided credibility and provided the characters depth. Although dysfunctional, the characters oddly connected with the audience. That may be a product of good character development, providing a series of personality traits that made them human. Maybe even in the dysfunction, we can see a bit of ourselves in the characters. The plot was exceptional, providing an interesting take on criminal thinking and botched criminal activity. Overall, the writing was magnificent.

The writing was paralleled by an amazing performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman. There are many actors that could have been cast in this role and may have made the part work. However, this part seemed to be tailor made for Hoffman. The intensity that this character conveyed required an actor with an emotional palette that could convince the audience of his calculated instability. For me, this was Hoffman’s best performance. There was one scene where he destroyed things in his apartment…it wasn’t rage…it was sort of a controlled fit where he casually released his pent up anger in an eerie display of emotion. Ethan Hawke was required to project a quality of submissive instability and ineptitude that he convincingly managed. His character had the right balance of submissiveness to Hoffman’s off kilter power plays. The two worked great together, delivering a stunning performance. When you add the expertise of an old pro like Albert Finney, you get nothing less than what you would expect. I thought Albert Finney was exceptional in A Good Year. His portrayal of Andy and Charles’ father in this movie was solid. His depression, anger and loss gave way to vengeance in a riveting thought-provoking performance. Marie Tomei provided some sub-plot material, but it occurred to me that she might have been in this movie for his breasts, which were shown in abundance in this film. Not that it was necessarily a bad thing. Her performance wasn’t weak, but it seems she was undressed more than she was dressed in this movie. This covers the major players in the film, the rest of the cast was strong, with no performance standing out as particularly good or bad. As a whole, this movie was exceptionally well cast.

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