Infernal Affairs: Lumet's Ferocious Twilight, Redford's Sallow Pamphlet
By Fernando F. Croce

With Jimmy Carter Man from Plains, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is the second time in so many weeks an octogenarian shows up the youngsters in his field. Here, it's the unsinkable Sidney Lumet, 83, directing roughly the tenth "comeback" film in a career that stretches back five decades and covers everything from judicial-system indictments to atomic cautionary tales to operatic policiers to Michael Jackson. The title, I'm told, is the second half of an Irish saying ("May you be in Heaven..." goes the first half), the Hell it opens with is a "victimless crime" that, botched, starts to accumulate victims. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play New York brothers, the former an implosive executive and the latter a deadbeat clod; both are strapped for dough, Hoffman to feed his narcotic habit and hang on to dreams of happiness with his alternately doleful and succulent wife (Marisa Tomei), Hawke to keep up with child support payments and get his ex-wife (Amy Ryan, following Gone Baby Gone with another virtuoso bit of blue-collar razzing) off his back. Hoffman comes up with the idea of stealing from a smalltime jewelry -- a mom-and-pop business, their mom and pop (Rosemary Harris, Albert Finney). Hawke is handed heist duties, and, dipshit that he is, recruits a former con (Brian F. O'Byrne) who "gets into character" by listening to death metal before running into the store with a real pistol. In record time, O'Byrne is dead, Harris has been fatally shot, Hawke is blubbering on the phone to Hoffman; the crime unravels, so does the family.

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is ferociously pleasurable. Lumet has already delivered at least three thorough distillations of his motifs (Prince of the City, Q&A, Night Falls on Manhattan), here he summons up his experience for a tingling exercise that, despite a screw-tightening intensity, sports much of same the easeful ribbing as Find Me Guilty. Kelly Masterson's screenplay segments the narrative into jerky "Three days before the robbery"-type chunks, but Lumet shoots it with bracing clarity -- the film sprints, the grip never slackens, the digital-video photography is concentrated, mined for rigorously analyzed shots (a tilt down from an epicene dealer's penthouse to Hoffman's face filled with anxiety, a dolly out of a newspaper in Finney's pocket at the funeral). "The world is an evil place... some of us make money from it," says a shady Methuselah, dark comedy heightens his credo: Hawke's distress just about turns him inside out, Finney's obsession with catching the culprits simultaneously corrodes and rejuvenates him, Hoffman maneuvers his girth to impose control yet admits "I'm not the sum of my parts," and ends up dismantling his entire apartment with the deliberate meekness of a monk. Without succumbing to explicit moralizing, the film becomes an annihilating moral document, rushing through indelibly unsavory places and bit players to locate the grubbiness at the heart of the family. The final scenes are what Huston found at the end of Wise Blood, and, regardless of his 1962 production, Lumet's real version of Long Day's Journey Into Night.

*

Roberto Rossellini once declared that cinema's primary purpose was to inform, educate, and lecture. Tag Gallagher, Rossellini's perceptive biographer, saw it as the sly joke that it was, but Robert Redford has no sense of humor and thus follows the great filmmaker's jibe to the letter in Lions for Lambs. Then again, the very title of this amazingly stilted, "relevant" discourse hinges on another misunderstanding of a quote: From what I recall in history class it was "jackasses," not "lambs," that stood for the misguided leaders sending brave warriors to the slaughter. (Surely Bush and company have earned the privilege of being called worse things than "lambs.") The anchor is Redford himself as a professor who sips from a bottomless Starbucks cup in his office at "a California university" (an unbilled cameo by Berkeley, in the film's one believable performance) while attempting to break through the cynical apathy of a student (Andrew Garfield). "Professors are salesmen," the grizzled veteran says; the same here goes for politicians, as elsewhere a rising right-wing senator (Tom Cruise doing a greasy Gordon Gekko impression) sells his "new Axis of Evil" doctrine to the liberal journalist (Meryl Streep) interviewing him. Since no gassy Hollywood screed is complete without the obligatory, non-white sacrificial victims, a couple of Army grunts (Derek Luke and Michael Peña) are stranded in a snowy Afghan plateau under enemy fire. Engagement and principles in a time when "Rome is burning" are Redford's themes, pitched with utter sincerity and rigorously filmed sans complexity, energy, life. In one desperate final attempt at shattering viewer complacency, the film dares to summon the ghost of... Britney Spears! Way to be timely, Sundance Kid.

*

The facilely symbolic central image in the documentary Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) has a frog munching on a fellow amphibian in a farm where the critters are kept crammed in a pond until slaughtered, cooked, and delivered to the plates of restaurants. Who filmed this shit? Jacopetti and Prosperi? No, it was Jason Kohn, who, instead of being called out on his ignorance, slickness and insensitivity in exploring the violence and corruption of Brazil's condition, was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. The out-of-control number of kidnappings in São Paulo gives Kohn a jumping-off point into the country's turmoil, where bulletproof-car driving courses, surgically reconstructed ears, and mendacious Pará state politician Jáder Barbalho are flashily but unenlighteningly braided by the filmmaker's sensation-sniffing camera. As a native Paulista, I can attest to the city's at times even absurd sense of dread ("We got the wrong person, but we aren't giving her back for free," one kidnapper says), but Manda Bala is much less interested in analyzing São Paulo's place in the shaky Brazilian system than in jacking it up with shorthand, gawk-at-the-foreigners shocks. Note to Kohn: Next time try going beyond Errol Morris's surface derision and into his grace, and, for fuck's sake, man, ditch the translators and just use subtitles.


Reviewed November 17, 2007.

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