Sydney Lumet’s Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead

I’ve seen some ill advised plans in my day and even orchestrated a few of them myself but I’ve never seen quite an ethically fucked, totally stupid, domed to fail miserably scheme as the one dreamed up by two dysfunctional middle aged NYC blue collar brothers in Sydney Lumet’s Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, a bleak, depressing, pitch dark, anxiety inducing morality play that although admittedly is an excellent film on all fronts, is *NOT* a pleasant viewing experience and I shan’t be revisiting any time soon. Ethan Hawke is the lower middle class, very aloof, perpetual screw-up brother whose marriage is a disaster, relationship with his daughter depressing and he needs cash for alimony quick. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the older, wiser (HA!) and more successful sibling with a sleek corporate career but has his own issues including backdoor corruption, a failing marriage of his own to Marisa Tomei (really? Those two?) and a crippling heroin habit. They’re both financially fucked, so big bro hatches a plan to rob a mall jewelry store on a low-key Saturday when the cash drop is in house. That’s already a bad enough idea, but get this: the store in question is owned by their own parents, who are elderly no less. Now, Hoffman has his own complicated reasons for justifying such a terrible act that stem back into their childhoods, as these kinds of inexplicably dour familial tragedies usually do, while Hawke sort of tags along in befuddled, brainless complicity. Naturally the heist itself goes just about as wrong as it can go and results in (this isn’t a spoiler it’s in the trailer) the gunshot wounding of their mother (Rosemary Harris) thanks to the incompetence of a hapless small time hoodlum (Brian F. O’Byrne) that Hawke hires to do his dirty work in an act of despicable cowardice. Their father (Albert Finney in a towering performance and the finest work of the film) is very clearly still in love with her and starts to unravel, and it becomes clear he always loved her over his own children, a gnawing thorn in the side of their overall dynamic that was just waiting for a traumatic event to rear its head in. The film skips around in time as we see the events leading up to the heist itself, each character’s desperate situation reaching a breaking point that leads to such an extreme decision, spearheaded by Hoffman’s impossibly bitter character, a fellow who is so uncomfortable in his own skin he even makes a seemingly lighthearted sex scene with Tomei come across as uncomfortable. The actors are all terrific with Finney being the standout as the furious, heartbroken and vengeful father who seems like he never wanted to be a father to begin with, just a husband. The supporting cast has some excellent cameos including Leonardo Cimino, Amy Ryan and Michael Shannon as a violent ex-con who muscles in on their lives. This is a great film with terrifically developed character dynamics, a crisp, well oiled storytelling vernacular and a refreshingly earthen portrait of lower middle class shenanigans that few films capture with authenticity, and naturally Lumet’s by now second nature knack for expressing the spirit of NYC, this time in deglamorized boroughs not usually focused on in cinema. It’s a great film, it’s just not a nice one and you’ll feel like shit after, there’s no other way to slice it.

-Nate Hill

Liz Garbus’s Lost Girls

There’s a certain melancholy defeat in viewing a film where missing and murdered people’s cases are met with lethargy, inaction and suspicious reluctance by the authorities, but in the same token they’re important films to watch as they shed spotlights on gross miscarriages of justice and impart that it can’t continue to go on like this. Liz Garbus’s Lost Girls uses a sobering tone, moody visuals and a deep intentional focus on the victims of the mysterious Long Island serial killer as human beings rather than ‘murdered prostitutes’ or statistical notches on the media’s callous belt. Around 2010 in rural New York State a serial killer struck, dumping bodies along a desolate stretch of road and leaving few clues save for vague ties to a nearby gated community that may be harbouring secrets. For struggling single mother Mari (Amy Ryan) this is a different kind of nightmare as her eldest daughter was in the area around this time and is still somewhere out there missing. Together with her two other daughters (Oona Laurence and Thomasin Mackenzie) she launches a fierce personal investigation into the matter when the lead detective (a smarmy Dean Winters) and even the police commissioner himself (Gabriel Byrne in introvert mode) seem to be willfully dragging their asses. It’s a sad story because Mari’s life is already tough enough; she’s severely low income, on her own as a mother and mental illness runs deeply within her family, already blooming in her youngest daughter. None of this makes the situation any better but she has grit, resolve and a desire for redemption that Ryan infuses in her performance nicely. The best work in the film goes to Thomasin Mackenzie as her middle daughter though, she’s an actress who made a big splash in Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace a couple years ago and once again delivers a powerful, understated yet rawly emotional performance. Because this is based on a real story that was never properly concluded there is a sense of heart wrenching, open ended pain here. The police investigation was never carried out properly, their response time to her daughter calling 911 the night she disappeared was unforgivable and as a collective result a heinous serial killer went uncaught. You’ll leave the film feeling sick and depressed, but it’s important that we pay attention because this shit probably happens every day. There’s a strong desire here to shirk the media’s portrayal of victims as deserving it because of their lifestyle and showing them as meaningless numbers in tv reports, while the families are out their mourning the human beings they remember so dearly. It’s in that the film finds it’s one ray of light, an important sentiment to take away. Not an easy watch, but perhaps the publicity now given to this tragic case will one day lead to the arrest of those responsible. Great film.

-Nate Hill