BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU’RE DEAD
Running time 117 minutes
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Written by Kelly Masterson
Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, Marisa Tomei
NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN
Running time 122 minutes
Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Starring Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin
Two of the darkest death-driven films of the 45th New York Film Festival are both American works directed by filmmakers who, though no strangers to noirish projects in the past, have attained new heights, or is it depths, of malignancy and morbidity, which, I suppose, is fitting for the increasingly dismal and depressing times in which we live. And I am not saying this simply because I am too rapidly approaching my 79th year on this reportedly endangered planet.
Anyway, the two films in question are Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, from a screenplay by Kelly Masterson, and Joel Coen and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy. If I prefer the former to the latter, it is because it is ultimately less nihilistic in tone and spirit, and nihilism has never been my strong suit in the cinema, though I imagine younger cultists of a certain type can never get enough of it.
By contrast, Mr. Lumet and Ms. Masterson, with their intricate narrative structure, have fashioned a veritable Greek tragedy with overpoweringly Oedipal overtones. This they have accomplished with an unusually early staging of a terribly botched robbery of a small Westchester jewelry store, which in an ordinary caper movie would constitute the narrative’s suspenseful climax, and then flashing back to the genesis of this crime. So, obviously, Mr. Lumet and company are after bigger game, and after almost two hours of time-juggling, they bag it.
The story centers on two brothers, the elder and more manipulative one played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and the younger and more vulnerable one played by Ethan Hawke. The elder brother is married to an attractive woman played by Marisa Tomei, but after a steamy session in the sack, followed by a deflatingly postcoital wifely remark, and a dispiriting session at the office, it becomes apparent that Mr. Hoffman’s character is living well beyond his means, and since his firm is facing an imminent audit by the Internal Revenue Service, he begins desperately looking for some quick cash to forestall his arrest for embezzlement. In the venture he has devised, he enlists the help of his down-and-out younger brother. Needy as he is, the younger sibling is shocked to discover that the older brother is planning to rob the family’s small jewelry store, owned and operated by their parents, played by Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris. The older brother is all breezy reassurance as he insists that it should be a cinch for the younger brother to execute the robbery with a fake gun and a hooded mask to conceal his identity. And why is the elder brother choosing not to become involved in the action? As he patiently explains to his would-be patsy, he is too well known in the neighborhood to be seen there. It becomes apparent from the elder’s practiced manner that he has been conning his brother all their lives.
In his turn, the younger brother cannot bear to brandish even a fake gun at his own mother, and so he solicits a hardened felon of his acquaintance to perform the heist for some of the advance money his older brother has given him to clinch the deal. Unfortunately, the felon doesn’t believe in fake guns, with the result that he and the unexpectedly feisty mother of the two brothers succeed only in killing each other as the younger brother flees in panic from the bloody scene.
The widowed father is bereft at first, but eventually becomes determined to find the killer’s accomplice in the getaway car that was seen speeding away from the jewelry store. To cover his and his brother’s tracks, the Hoffman character has to kill again and again. Inexorably, father and son are drawn into a final, fatal confrontation. The 83-year-old Mr. Lumet, who has handled such immortals as Brando and Magnani in his career, expertly extracts individually charismatic performances from Mr. Hoffman, Mr. Hawke, Mr. Finney, Ms. Harris and Ms. Tomei. Even so, I preferred his 2006 Find Me Guilty, which made my 10-best list that year. It was even less nihilistic.
As for the nihilism on display in No Country for Old Men, the collaboration between the Coen brothers and Cormac McCarthy was a marriage made in heaven or, more likely, hell. Mr. McCarthy has reportedly praised the movie for remaining faithful to the book, and well he might, if only for all the casting coups, starting off with Javier Bardem’s uncannily apt incarnation of evil as Anton Chigurn, a subhuman killing machine with a touch of whimsy in his expression and in his soothing funeral director’s voice. When the Coen Brothers appeared on the stage of Frederic P. Rose Hall in the Time Warner Center with the members of their cast, they introduced Mr. Bardem as their own Lee Van Cleef, a generally villainous character actor in the Sergio Leone Western cycle. But whereas Mr. Van Cleef’s bad guys always came to a bad end in the final draws of the Leone movies, Mr. Bardem’s Chigurn chugs through Texas like an unchecked force of nature. That is one of the reasons I prefer Leone’s oeuvre to that of the Coen brothers and Mr. McCarthy, despite their aforementioned casting coups with Mr. Bardem, and almost as impressively with Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Bell; Josh Brolin as Moss, Chigurn’s ill-fated main adversary; Woody Harrelson as the unflappable mob troubleshooter, Carson Wells, who also runs afoul of Chigurn; and Kelly Macdonald as Moss’ tormented wife, the only significant female presence in an overwhelmingly masculine epic with its lavishly detailed explorations of male survival skills.
Mr. McCarthy has won just about every literary honor while being likened to Ernest Hemingway for his minimalist style, and to Samuel Beckett for his volcanic bleakness of outlook on matters of life and death. I happened to find No Country for Old Men an absorbing read, but it left me all empty inside. I must confess that I couldn’t get very far into Blood Meridian, another of his books that was recommended to me. So, I suppose, I have chosen to live out my life without getting involved with Mr. McCarthy’s literary outlook.
Still, I suspect that his clouded vision of existence is somewhat too grim and dark for even the most noirish movie genre. He makes Elmore Leonard look like a barrel of laughs, and Faulkner a beacon of hope. Nonetheless, some of the pithiest exchanges in the movie were taken almost verbatim from the book. I may be clearly in the minority on this movie. It will almost certainly be number one on my list of movies that other people liked and I didn’t. I will not describe the narrative in any great detail both because I would be perceived as spoiling the “fun” of discovering the many surprises for yourself, and because I cannot look at it and write about it in any other way than as an exercise in cosmic futility. Yet, I’m not sorry I saw it over a running time of 122 minutes, just about the length of time I’d like to spend on a quick in-and-out visit to hell.