Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

I finally saw it last weekend, and it’s easy to see why it has the critics in raptures. There's the great cast, dominated but never overshadowed by Philip Seymour Hoffman's riveting scenery-chewing: Ethan Hawke continues to demonstrate that nothing becomes a too-handsome actor like the gradual loss of his looks, and Marisa Tomei continues to prove (in small, little-seen films, alas) that the Academy didn't actually make a mistake back in 1993. There's a rancidly-clever script, complete with a rare screwing-with-the-timeline gimmick that doesn't feel like warmed-over Tarantino. And there's the added frisson of knowing that the whole thing was put together by an aging lion of American cinema, rounding into form for his twilight years.

Yet something about it left me cold. Recently, Jonah Goldberg wondered why no one was drawing comparisons between No Country For Old Men and Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, a snowbound noir that was unjustly neglected, I think, because it came out just two years after everyone went gaga for the similarly-snowbound, similarly noir-ish Fargo. I see what he’s getting at: Both are about working-class guys who stumble on bags of money deep in the American hinterland, and both follow their protagonists down to their inevitable undoing. But I think the better comparison is actually between Raimi's movie and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead - the two films could have swapped titles pretty easily - and I don’t think the comparison redounds to the latter’s benefit.

No Country For Old Men opens outward from its money-swiping hero into a broader canvas; it’s a sociological and metaphysical tragedy as well as a personal one. Sidney Lumet’s film, by contrast, is a constricted story, an essentially domestic tragedy that’s concerned with the damnation individuals visit on themselves, rather than the suffering that change and fate and God visit on society as a whole. And in this regard, I found its doomed characters far less persuasive, and thus far less interesting, than the unhappy Midwesterners conjured up by Bill Paxton, Billy Bob Thornton and Bridget Fonda and Brent Briscoe in A Simple Plan. In Raimi’s movie, I believed that the characters existed apart from the plot, that they had lives before the money came into their world, trailing destruction in its wake. Whereas as fine as Lumet’s cast was, I didn’t believe that their characters existed except in the context of the film: I didn’t believe that Hoffman’s character was married to Tomei’s character, or that she was having an affair with Hawke’s character, and so on and so forth, except insofar as I needed to believe it for the (very clever) schematics of the plot to make sense. The players felt more like pieces in a clockwork system than human beings trapped in a web of their own making, and as a result the movie was thrilling without being wrenching. I cared about what happened, but I didn’t care about the people it was happening to.