Saturday, September 13, 2008

#72 Saturday Matinee--"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead"

What a catchy title (ha)--I first tried to bring it up on the IMDB with "Until the Devil..." and of course it didn't work. A tangential, very un-mnemonic title like that can be a detriment for any movie, especially when it's only a very good film and not a box-office blockbuster that's on everybody's Fargo. On the other hand, a mediocre film can be elevated beyond its true worth on the coattails of a provocative title like When Harry Met Sally or Oh Brother, Where Art Thou--the latter not one of The Brothers' best. And speaking of the Coen boys (Mr. and Mrs. Francis McDormand, if you will), gotta wait on Netlix for their current version of OBWAT/Big Lebowski with Brad Somebody.

But hold on...Isn't BTDKYD a Coen Bros. job? If you sat down in your multiplex seat or slid in your Netflix disc without paying attention to the credits--you might think so. It's classic CB: semi-good but stupid people with ethically permeable epiderms, who get involved in willy-nilly cupidinous schemes that initially "won't hurt anybody" (think Fargo or the totally comedic Raising Arizona), but which pull everyone ineluctably into the vortex of Hell. But no, shockingly, this is the work of an 83-year-old Sidney Lumet. But he's a totally linear-plot man, you're thinking. Chronological. Procedural. His touchstone in this regard was his very first break-through, 12 Angry Men (1957): perfect linearity in time AND space. Never a deviation from the clock (in fact almost real-time), and hardly from the jury-room (two-minute opening in the courtroom and two-minute coda on the courthouse steps). His great ones from that point on follow that moment-to-moment, this-place-to-the-next template: Failsafe '64 (Fonda again and where the ticking nuclear time-bomb is tantamount to star-of-the-show), and the later films: Pawnbroker (almost all action in Rod Steiger's shop), Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon (two Pacinos), Verdict (with Newman and another of his half-dozen courtroom dramas stretching back to his TV Studio One days), and Murder on the Orient Express '74. Loved 'em all. After the flop of The Wiz '76, he made forgettable movies like...I forget. Yet can you he is over 30 years later doing good things again. (Gives us Geezers hope.)

But BTDetc is totally uncharacteristic of the best of Lumet, you say. It for fair BOUNCES US ABOUT in time and space, so unlike those earlier successes. Not quite. (However, make no mistake about it, Myriad Readers: despite a great plot, a lot of Marissa Tomei in the flesh, and another incredible performance by P. S. Hoffman--this film will stand or fall on how well you take to the time-bouncing.) Murder....etc. had flashbacks. The Poirot interrogation of the various suspects seemed naturally to the viewer to require them. Likewise, in another, earlier, under-appreciated Sean Connery collaboration, The Anderson Tapes '71, Lumet throws the whole movie into flashback via the device of audiotape replay. (Don't ask me to explain.) First comes the everything-goes-wrong Big Heist, then the playback of events leading up to it. Sound familiar? BTD is TAT all over again, though I haven't seen any other reviewers take notice. The difference--a big one--is that TAT's time-jumping had some justification, like that of the Poirot investigation in the Agatha Christie movie. The time and space dislocations were tied to plot. (The very best example of THAT is the recent Memento, where plot IS flashbacking.) Unfortunately, here in BTD it just makes you dizzy. No organic, common-sense reason to be bouncing us around. By all means, Mr. Lumet, begin with the spectacular, nerve-jangling heist-gone-terribly-wrong scene (it is beautifully done), but then let the flashback start ab initio and proceed therefrom in chronological fashion. Maybe in your "director's cut"? Golly Wiz, I think the film would double in quality. My grade: B-.

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