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