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Blood brothers: (l-r) Hoffman and Hawke in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

Close to Home

By Laura Leon

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

Directed by Sidney Lumet

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is that rare movie you feel in your bones as much as you witness with your eyes and ears. The stench of moral decay and the sense of mounting debt and precipitous disaster pervade, almost oozing out of the celluloid and into your very skin. This is the octogenarian director Sidney Lumet’s 45th-or-so feature film, and if this is a swan song, he’s letting us know that he’s going out with a bang. Literally.

The movie begins with a disjointed series of episodes. Some involve the couplings of Andy Hanson (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and his bored wife Gina (Marisa Tomei), while others focus on the botched robbery of a suburban jewelry store. Early on, it’s clear that the mastermind of the heist is Andy, who desperately needs cash to fuel his high-priced drug needs, and to adjust his accounts at his job, a business that is about to get audited by the IRS. Perhaps because blood is thicker than water, Andy enlists the aid of his slacker, loser brother Hank (Ethan Hawke); even from the viewer’s brief onscreen acquaintance, this act seems to plant the kiss of death on what is supposed to be a victimless crime.

The movie goes back and forth in time, often repeating a scene but from a different perspective, so that we’re able to patch together how a seemingly easy take of several hundred thousand goes horribly awry. Lumet, working off a brilliant screenplay by Kelly Masterson, isn’t so much worried with filling in the blanks of his characters’ backgrounds—How did they get here? What happened to turn them against their parents?—as he is with letting his actors chew the fat (and I mean this admiringly) of the human condition. What separates us from love and filial duty, if not jealousy and greed?

As the movie projects forward from the fateful moment of the would-be robbery, we encounter Charles Hanson (Albert Finney), the stunned but ready-for-battle father who readily leaps into the void left by an uncommitted police force to find out why a second-rate hood from the city ventured to Westchester to target his store. As Charles deals with his grief over his wife’s senseless death, he tries to atone for not having been the greatest dad to Andy. This makes for intense drama, as we in the audience are fully aware that Nanette Hanson (Rosemary Harris) is dead only because of Andy’s machinations. Nevertheless, there is something pathetic and universal in Charles’ wish to bless his son, and for Andy’s desire for acceptance.

What makes Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead so poignant is that it deals with ordinary people. Despite their lapses in judgment, each of the characters is steeped in something very close to home for all of us. Indeed, this is carried through beautifully to even the bit players, including a crafty diamond broker who knew Charles from way back when, and whose comments about the nature of evil suggest not just a life lived amply, but a secret understanding of Charles’ own rise from the diamond district to the ’burbs. At the end, you want nothing more than to take a hot shower, as if to absolve yourself from all the sins you feel you’ve partaken in, but it’s this same gritty, feral, fearless storytelling that makes Devil Lumet’s crowning achievement.

Not Even Two-Dimensional

Beowulf

Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Beowulf, as constructed by capture-motion technology under the aegis of Robert Zemeckis (The Polar Express), is being compared to 300, the sleeper hit CG version of another ancient tale. The comparison is un substantiated hype. Beowulf (very loosely adapted from the early Anglo-Saxon epic poem) uses digital replications of actors rather than digitally enhanced actors, and the difference is numbing. Lacking both the fluidity and imagination of animated characters and the realism of movement and expression of live bodies, the cast of Beowulf (with one exception) come ac ross like bendable puppets. At its best—which is Beowulf’s climactic battle with a dragon with gold-lamé skin—Beowulf can be likened to one of the more advanced X-Box games.

It doesn’t help that the dialogue is as artificial as the plot. The script, by Neil Gaiman (Princess Mononoke) and Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction), could’ve been written by any fanboy with a cheat sheet on the poem’s names and thanes. The setup is similar: A warrior with a rep, Beowulf (Ray Winstone), and his posse, sail the North Sea to the kingdom of Hrothgar, whose fiefdom is being terrorized by a monster named Grendel (Crispin Glover). Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) is a drunken, lecherous buffoon with a passive young wife (Robin Wright Penn) who’d rather bed down with Beowulf. The love triangle, bland as it is, is derailed by the weirdness of Hrothgar/Hopkins’ eyes and eyebrows, and Queen/Wright Penn having a face like the Pillsbury dough-wench.

Without any of the suspense of the poem, a supersized Grendel launches a head-on attack on the king’s lodge, flinging warriors about like dolls (and eliciting snickers instead of shudders among the teenage boys at a recent screening). Basically a skeleton with shredded ligaments, tattered metallic skin, with mucous- oozing apertures, Zemeckis’ Grendel is a gross-out stunt that doesn’t make any sense, especially since he conveniently shrinks in size from scene to scene, allowing Beowulf a chance to prove his ferocity.

Grendel’s mother, however, is a serpent-tailed demon, and her revenge is of the lethal-siren variety. As modeled and voiced by Angelina Jolie in the film’s only visually synchronized performance, she’s a gold-skinned Vargas vamp who lures Beowulf to a fate that’s . . . rather advantageous, thus contradicting the script’s attempt at supplying a moral to its willy-nilly story (don’t fornicate with demons). Winstone manages to lend a serious tone to Beowulf’s swaggering, and that’s an accomplishment considering the ludicrousness of listening to Winston’s voice coming out of a Herculean body and Sean Bean’s head. John Malkovich does some interesting voicing for his ambivalently Christian hanger-on, while Brendan Gleeson flounders trying to add a tincture of humor as Beowulf’s loyal sidekick.

As for the film’s supposedly groundbreaking techniques, Beowulf has one interlude of interest, and that’s Beowulf’s extended battle with the dragon, which traverses the landscape, the sea, and the castle walls. The underwater squirming is pretty cool, though (at least in 2-D) it isn’t much of an advance over the CGI inventions of The Lord of the Rings. And even if it was, it would still be hard to care if the fire-shooting dragon turned our hero into an action-figure shish kebab since he’s . . . just an action figure with moveable eyebrows.

—Ann Morrow


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