Mas­ter­ful sus­pense

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

WE know the US is a vi­o­lent so­ci­ety where gun cul­ture is en­demic and we also know pop­u­lar cul­ture mir­rors the so­ci­ety from which it emerges. It comes as no sur­prise that some of the best Amer­i­can films re­leased in re­cent years have dealt, in one form or an­other, with vi­o­lent crime: the last two best pic­ture Os­car win­ners ( The De­parted, No Coun­try for Old Men) fall into this cat­e­gory and so do many less feted but hardly less in­ter­est­ing films such as Zo­diac, In the Val­ley of Elah and now Be­fore the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

This film is an as­ton­ish­ing re­turn to form for di­rec­tor Sid­ney Lumet, 83, whose cin­ema ca­reer started in 1957 with a sem­i­nal crime film, 12 An­gry Men. Lumet has been con­stantly ac­tive since then, with vari­able re­sults. His best films, in­clud­ing Dog Day Af­ter­noon, Net­work and Ser­pico, have been ac­com­pa­nied by far less suc­cess­ful works.

Lumet, a child ac­tor, started di­rect­ing for television when dra­mas went to air live and he has ex­pe­ri­enced all the tech­no­log­i­cal changes that have led to his latest work be­ing pho­tographed not on film but on high- def­i­ni­tion video. And if you didn’t know you’d never guess that such a sup­ple, in­ven­tive and pow­er­ful ex­er­cise in sus­pense was made by an oc­to­ge­nar­ian; it feels like the work of a young up- and­comer, not a vet­eran near­ing re­tire­ment.

This is an orig­i­nal screen­play by first- timer Kelly Master­son and it would be a shame to re­veal too much about it. In essence, it’s a re­work­ing of the familiar plot about a rob­bery that goes badly wrong, but usu­ally in this kind of film the plot­ters are pro­fes­sional crim­i­nals who have put a lot of thought into what they’re go­ing to do.

The tem­plate was prob­a­bly John Hus­ton’s The As­phalt Jun­gle, made in 1950, but the non­lin­ear struc­ture of Lumet’s film harks back to Stan­ley Kubrick’s The Killing, made six years later. Like the Kubrick film, and like Quentin Tarantino’s Reser­voir Dogs, Be­fore the Devil Knows You’re Dead doesn’t fol­low a chrono­log­i­cal time frame. It opens with a star­tling scene of in­ti­macy be­tween a man and his wife ( we soon learn that they don’t of­ten en­joy sex as much as they ob­vi­ously just have), and that’s pos­si­bly be­cause they’re on hol­i­day in Brazil, not at home in dreary sub­ur­ban New York.

The hus­band is Andy ( Philip Sey­mour Hoff­man), who works as the pay­roll man­ager of a large real es­tate com­pany. His wife Gina ( Marisa Tomei) is cheat­ing on him, but he doesn’t know that yet. The film’s sec­ond se­quence is pre­ceded by a ti­tle, The Day of the Rob­bery, and with no fur­ther in­for­ma­tion we are in the mid­dle of an armed at­tack by a lone gun­man on a small jew­ellery shop.

We’ve hardly di­gested this when an­other ti­tle ap­pears — Hank: 3 Days Be­fore the Rob­bery — and we en­ter the world of Andy’s younger brother Hank ( Ethan Hawke). The brothers don’t look much alike but they have two things in com­mon, one of which is that they des­per­ately need money ( the other is best left to the film to re­veal).

Andy, who looks plumply pros­per­ous, has been si­phon­ing his com­pany’s funds to pay for an ex­pen­sive heroin habit, and Hank, a born loser, is in debt to his ag­grieved ex- wife ( Amy Ryan) and can’t af­ford to pay for his daugh­ter to go on a school trip to see The Lion King.

It soon be­comes clear that this is more than just a movie about a rob­bery; it’s mainly about a fam­ily and the sim­mer­ing ten­sions within that fam­ily. The brothers’ par­ents ( Al­bert Fin­ney and Rose­mary Har­ris) have been mar­ried for many years and are still rapt in one an­other. When the par­ents are drawn into their sons’ des­per­ate and fool­hardy schemes, the film takes on the di­men­sions of a Greek or Shake­spearean tragedy or, as has been pointed out, Eu­gene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Jour­ney into Night . ( Lumet di­rected a film ver­sion of the play in 1962.)

Riv­et­ing per­for­mances from ev­ery mem­ber of the cast ( Tomei is elec­tri­fy­ing) give this clev­erly plot­ted, skil­fully di­rected film lay­ers of dis­tinc­tion. The ti­tle comes from an Ir­ish toast: ‘‘ May you be in heaven half an hour be­fore the devil knows you’re dead.’’ More than a half hour af­ter this ex­cel­lent film has ended you may still be tin­gling with ten­sion.

* * * THE com­bi­na­tion of French di­rec­tor Michel Gondry and Amer­i­can screen­writer Char­lie Kauf­man pro­duced Eter­nal Sun­shine of the Spot­less Mind, a con­tem­po­rary mas­ter­piece, but Gondry’s work since then has ex­posed, rather cru­elly, the in­ven­tive di­rec­tor’s debt to his col­lab­o­ra­tor. His new film, Be Kind Rewind, has none of the depth and imag­i­na­tion of the ear­lier work; in­stead, it’s a ter­mi­nally silly story and only fit­fully amus­ing.

Gondry ap­pears to have been in­spired by a craze among some young peo­ple for film­ing their own ver­sions of the films they love. Mike ( Mos Def), who man­ages an an­ti­quated video rental store for Mr Fletcher ( Danny Glover), re­sorts to this fad of ne­ces­sity when his slacker pal Jerry ( Jack Black) ac­ci­den­tally wipes all the VHS tapes in the store. ( Mr Fletcher seems not to be­lieve in DVDs.)

So when mousey Miss Falewicz ( Mia Far­row) wants to rent Ghost Busters , the lads have to make a new ver­sion for her, and be­fore long they, and an in­creas­ing num­ber of hang­ers- on, in­clud­ing cute Melonie Diaz, are re­mak­ing Driv­ing Miss Daisy, Rush Hour 2 (‘‘ Our ver­sion is only 20 min­utes, it’s bet­ter than the orig­i­nal’’), The Lion King, The Um­brel­las of Cher­bourg and even 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The joke quickly wears thin and it beg­gars be­lief that an en­tire com­mu­nity would rally around a pair of slack­ers to par­tic­i­pate in such a child­ish en­ter­prise.

Hav­ing said that, film buffs may well en­joy the im­prob­a­ble ways in which fa­mous scenes from cel­e­brated films are restaged on a bud­get of zero. And there’s a tart lit­tle se­quence in which a pompous rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the Mo­tion Pic­ture Pro­duc­ers As­so­ci­a­tion ( played by Sigour­ney Weaver, who ap­peared in the of­fi­cial Ghost Busters ) ar­rives to ac­cuse the hap­less home movie- mak­ers of in­fring­ing copy­right and de­mand that their ef­forts be de­stroyed.

Un­happy fam­ily: Philip Sey­mour Hoff­man, left, and Ethan Hawke are brothers caught up in a rob­bery gone wrong in Be­fore the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Hey kids, let’s put on a show: Melonie Diaz, Jack Black and Mos Def in Be Kind Rewind

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