I: "Before The Devil Knows You're Dead"*
In Broad Daylight
The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Just ask Andy and Hank Hanson. They both need money because they want to do right by their families: Andy, so he can get out of debt and maybe move with his depressed wife to Rio de Janeiro; Hank, because he's a few months late in child support, and he wants to do right by his daughter...oh, and his mistress, and ...well, all of Hank's dreams are short-term.
But Andy has a plan that's fool-proof: a robbery. "No one gets hurt. It's perfect." Trouble is, Hank's a fool, and he agrees before he knows all that it entails. Andrew, a real estate accountant, gives him a down-payment. "There's $2,000. See what that does for you. Imagine the rest."
They can't imagine. Because, as they say in the magazine-shows, things go "horribly, horribly wrong."
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead might belong to that sub-genre of comedy films called "The Incredible Mess," where seemingly simple plans go increasingly awry, but it's no comedy, except in the perverse way perfect disasters pile upon perfect disasters.
I would contend, however, that the movie, as written by Kelly Masterson, is a film noir, that species of film where the world maliciously has it in for an honest man, and corruption runs so deep that it's manifested in a shade of fathomless blackness--"where the world is dark with something more than night," as the saying goes. One of the laureates of the proto-noir story was Raymond Chandler, who laid out the ground-rules for his brand of detective fiction in an essay titled "The Simple Art of Murder," first published in 1944, and quoted extensively below.** In it, he railed against the "drawing room" brand of detective fiction as weak and unrealistic, and that a detective-hero must try and find Truth in a fabric of deception, obfuscation, and agendas so thick it's like wading through a cess-pool.
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is so steeped in layers of corruption that any transgression amplifies to the worst possible conclusion, and by chain reaction drags the innocent down as well as the guilty in a tragedy of Shakespearean consequences. No one is immune from the veil of evil. The world of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is so corrupt, there is no hero. And it all happens in broadest daylight.
There have been "daylight-noirs" before, like Gun-Crazy, and, of course, Chinatown, which takes place in sun-blasted L.A. But Devil is centered in New York, and mostly gentrified New York at that. New York, because the director is Sidney Lumet, who quite rarely makes a movie anywhere else. Lumet's an odd choice for a noir film, although he's made many films in The Big Apple's squalor—Serpico, The Pawnbroker, Prince of the City, Q & A, and he's made many movies that intertwine family and crime—Dog Day Afternoon, Murder on the Orient Express, and Family Business. As a director, he's not very stylish, and is, in fact, pretty clunky, as in Twelve Angry Men, and Fail-Safe, or, dare I mention it, The Wiz. Lumet expends his energy on performance, rather than construction. In fact, Lumet has rarely risen above his roots as a director of live television: a master shot, the occasional close-up, and that's about it. His camera work is utilitarian at its best, sometimes inelegant, brightly lit, nothing fancy. He tends to downplay using film scores (except as punctuation, however, when he wants mood, he will overdo it, as per Murder on the Orient Express), thinking them too pervasive and detracting from a scene's manufactured reality. When he does try something different (in other films, it was crudely distorting lenses) it's always in your face. Here, it's an editing transition that flashes forward and back three to four times, similar to the "druggy" transitions in Easy Rider, but with an annoying clacking noise at each edit. The story-telling technique employed is similar to that of another noir, Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, where the actual caper is viewed from one character's point of view, then rewinds back to another participant's during the same time period and beyond. The plot advances and coalesces in increments until the inevitable end-game where all stories come together. And Devil ends in the only way this noir-in-daylight could end.
Because it's Lumet, it's the performances where the movie shines: Philip Seymour Hoffman is all sweating self-pity as Andrew, Ethan Hawke is Hank, a pitiful train-wreck doing a poor job of trying to appear "together", Albert Finney goes a bit over the top as their father Charles, and Marisa Tomei shows the promise that her early Oscar win belied as Andrew's wife, caught in the middle. But the smaller performances of minor characters like Michael Shannon and Aleksa Palladino stand out as well. It's a blackly depressing film that owes whatever greatness it achieves to the writing and performances.
That, in All Things
Now, walk down these mean streets a little further--all the way to Boston. Here you'll find private detective Patrick Kenzie, the very definition of the term John D. MacDonald used to describe Raymond Chandler. "He writes," said MacDonald "like a slumming angel." Kenzie knows the back-alleys, the crack-dens, the gang-bangers, the dealers, the dive bars and the angles and he knows how to handle them with a cock-suredness that belies his years.*** But that street cred only takes you so far, because although he's lived in Boston his entire life, New Orleans transplant detective Remy Bressant (Ed Harris--extraordinarily good) tells him "I've been here longer than you've been alive."
And Bressant has seen the long continuous story of those places Kenzie merely visits. But if Bressant knows more, nobody tops Captain Doyle (Morgan Freeman, completely dominating the three scenes he's in), whose daughter was kidnapped and killed, and has dedicated his life to making sure it doesn't happen again on his watch. 4½ year old Amanda McCready has gone missing from the neglectful eye of her good-for-nothing mother and Kenzie and his partner Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan) have been hired by an aunt to find her, however reluctant they are to take the case. Within 24 hours, there's a good chance they can find her alive and unharmed. She's been gone, now, for 60.
And soon, after all the slumming and the chance-taking, the compromises with the police and the stake-outs gone bad, the case comes to a dissatisfying end, and like any good noir dick, that's just not good enough for Kenzie. He has to keep pushing for Truth, no matter how hidden, no matter the consequences. But the Truth hurts and can lead to decisions made for the best of reasons but the worst of consequences. And this "slumming angel," this noir-hero by Chandler's precise description, will suffer the consequences for his decision, both personal and professional. But because he is the hero, he must fight that corruption even if the result is not a more perfect world, but the same tainted world as when he began. And maybe, even one that's worse.
As it happens, there is no moral high ground here. There is no "right" and "wrong" for the situation is too far out of control for there to be a "right" and a "wrong" and the two step over each other's line as often as a police tape is crossed. The resolution of the story, the choices made can be argued for days, and the last shot of the movie damns even as it takes the film to a logical conclusion.
This has been a great year for Casey Affleck. First, he stepped out of the star-crush to become more than a glorified extra in Ocean's 13, carried the bulk of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and now holds his own against Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris at the height of their powers. His performance in Gone Baby Gone shows great versatility and an amazing range.
But if Casey's potential has come to fruition, the emergence of Ben Affleck as a director is nothing short of a revelation. Here he shows a command of time and place, and a wonderful eye for faces that lend authenticity to the grime of the surroundings. An action scene at night may not be as focused and suspenseful as it should be, but the rest of the movie is assured, and negotiates moral discussions without getting bogged down in high-handedness or slowing the movie down. That fine directorial touch extends all the way to the wickedly oblique final shot that will creep on you days after the fade to black. Given this auspicious debut, one looks forward to the next film featuring Ben Affleck behind the camera.
Which is why the pairings of Gone Baby Gone and Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is of such interesting coincidence. I'm not going to say that first-time director Ben Affleck is a better director than Sidney Lumet, but he sure does trust the audience more. He leaves you with such a complex moral dilemma that it generates more questions than answers. Lumet would never allow questions and would telegraph the answers. Lumet may generate outrage, but he doesn't generate thought (unless he's so obtuse, you wonder what his point was). Affleck, with this movie and his second film The Town**** (but not Argo, his crowd-pleasing Oscar-winner—that one's pretty cut-and-dried) did not telegraph easy answers or opinions. If anything, he left you hanging with ambiguity, wondering what came next. Starting out, at least, his movies seemed to indicate that they continued to have life after he shut off the camera. Affleck leaves you wanting more. Lumet says everything that he has to say.
Affleck has had the benefit of more hind-sight than Lumet and less time in the director's booth of TV. That's an advantage, and his movies feel less staged and less in a bubble-universe all their own than Lumet's.
I guess that this is an explanation that all these years later, that I think Affleck's first film is better than Lumet's last. Interesting.