Sunday, May 18, 2008

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead -- Sin's Slippery Slope

The title of the movie is apparently taken from the Irish toast: "May you have food and raiment, a soft pillow for your head; may you be 40 years in heaven, before the devil knows you're dead." In the opening credits, director Sidney Lumet (last seen as an actor in Michael Clayton) replaces 40 years by 30 minutes, focusing clearly on avoiding the devil and squeaking into heaven, not on being there to enjoy it. But leaving the first part of the toast out, it is evident that this is going to be a dark movie, a common theme of 2007 dramas.

In the opening scene we see Andy Hanson (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his wife Gina (Marisa Tomei) enjoying paradise, well Brazil at least. But there is a worm in paradise, and their brief pleasure is but a short respite from reality, the reality of New York. This happy scene is as good as it gets. It's all bleak and downhill from here, and the opening makes this clear.

Devil uses the postmodern technique of nonlinear story-telling, with flashbacks cut closely into the narrative, and showing the same scene from different perspectives to communicate new information. This is both entertaining and confusing in parts, as we don't know exactly what is going on. But that does add to the building of tension.

Back in New York, Andy is an accountant or senior manager in a real estate firm. Dressed in tailored suits, and living in a posh house, he seems to be successful. But appearances can be deceiving. Underneath he is an embezzler and a drug-addict. He is emotionally estranged from Gina, though they share the same house and bed. At one point, he confesses to his drug-dealer that he feels disconnected, his whole is less than the sum of his parts.

Hank (Ethan Hawke) is Andy's little brother who is divorced and behind on his child support payments. He is in dire need of money. He is defined by the labels others impose on him. His brother and his dad (Albert Finney) call him a baby, and his daughter and ex-wife call him a loser. He lives up (or down) to these appelations. Hawke plays him to a tee, controlled by the sultry voice of Andy, a snake of a brother. This calls us to think carefully on the names we call those around us. Even in jest, a name can stick and define a friend or relative. He may shrug it off as a joke, but it may subtly stick in his subconscious and have an impact beyond its intent.

Since both Andy and Hank are in dire financial needs, Hank devises a scheme to net them quick cash -- rob a jewelry store. The twist is, that the store is a mom and pop store, not a large chain, and it is their mom and pop's store. Easy in, steal the jewels, the folks get the insurance, and Andy sells the loot to a fence for 20 cents on the dollar. No one gets hurt. That's the plan.

Before Andy will reveal this plan to Hank his little brother must commit to the robbery. As Hank's interests grows, he goes from standing to sitting, to committing. This is an example of the downward path depicted in Psalm 1: "Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers."

But in real life, as in a good Hollywood film, plans don't usually work without some hitch. When Hank brings in a helper, since he himself is a baby, the help carries a gun. Things go awry, bullets get fired and Mom ends up in ER. There is no haul, just ruined lives, dead bodies.

As the non-linear story unwinds, we see the build-up to the robbery intertwined with the consequences of the botched job. Hank looks to Andy. Andy looks to preserve himself. As the movie progresses, little things crop up to bring the two deeper and deeper into trouble. As this happens, Andy's sin blossoms. What started with drug abuse and stealing, led to robbery and homicide. It finally leads to cold-blooded murder.

Sin leads a person down a slippery slope. What looks easy is not, but instead has a high cost and takes a terrible toll on all those around. Sin destroys families not just individuals. Like No Country for Old Men, this movie has good acting from the four main characters (as well as from Amy Ryan as Hank's ex-wife), but is a bleak picture of human depravity and sin's consequences. There is no redemption here.

Copyright 2008, Martin Baggs

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