Sunday, 16 February 2014

Scene on a Sunday Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (and a Hoffmanesque preamble)

I’d meant to resuscitate my favourite feature of the blog since early January but got waylaid by other duties. In February while beginning a piece for it, the terrible news that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died came making my choice for a scene with him both awkward and painful.

Two weeks later, the memory of his death is still a significant devastating one. I like Hoffman a whole lot, he was an actor I always looked forward to in films. Chamelonic might not be quite the accurate adjective to describe him, but he sure was gifted at playing different spectrums of broken people. One particular reason I loved him so much was for the way he stood as evidence the truth that being a great actor was about more than sticking to conventional aesthetics of the film industry. I remember a discussion a few years back about Hollywood’s alleged tendency to cast good looking actresses as the wives of less good looking and Hoffman in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead came up. I recall being particularly discomfited by the claim for myriad reasons. The most obvious being that it was such a shallow reading of what romantic affiliations should be and the second being that although he was no Marisa Tomei on the aesthetic level, Hoffman was a good looking man. The more I pondered, though, the more I realised that my annoyance it significantly came down to the fact that aesthetically Hoffman’s slight paunchiness made him stand apart from his contemporaries – the Brad Pitts, and the Tom Cruises and the Jude Laws and the Russell Crowes and Sean Penns and Johnny Depp, all in that same tentative 40-50 year old bracket.

The issue of beauty standards come up with female actors often, and it is, indeed, less pervasive for male actors but it’s not absent. Maybe not as significantly on a facially aesthetic level but significantly from a body perspective. Those contemporaries of Hoffman are all marked by their litheness. There's the subtle undercurrent which persists that stocky actors aren't believable as great actors or as the love-interests of pretty women. It's why I always love Hoffman just a bit more, as proof that the convention didn't always need to persist. To watch Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead and complain that his movie-wife is too goodlooking for him is to miss the true effect of this excellent.

But, enough of that digression. Two brief scenes as a return to this feature.

I kept vacillating on which scene to choose from Sidney Lumet’s final film. The father/son conversation with Hoffman is a thing of beauty and Tomei’s final scene as she leaves her husband is full of underlying subtext but I ended up settling on the film’s main pillars – the story of two brothers, unequally pitted.

For me this is arguable career-best work from Hawke and Hoffman who use their typical actorly characteristics to such excellent here.

Neither scene is the most visually arresting scene of the film (the movie would win my 2007 prize for Best Editing) but it’s significant nonetheless.

This first scene is early on in the film. A few scenes earlier Andy has set up the promise of a robbery to help with Hank’s money problems pitching it in the quaintest words possible.

So, it's safe, nobody gets hurt, everybody wins. It's perfect.

We know that these things never turn out as perfect as they are set up, so even before we get to the root of the robbery the sense of unease is palpable. But, Hank’s back is against the wall and as is typical of many Hoffman characters Andy is a good talker, a smooth-operator even. This scene, basic in giving us information, is good example of just how convincing Hoffman can make a sleaze ball. The dynamic of the two brothers’ relationship is set up in excellent form.

HANK: “So, that place that you were talking about…”

ANDY: “What place?”

HANK: “The one that we were going to, uh –”
ANDY: “To knock off?”
HANK: “Yeah.”

ANDY: “To rob? You say it.”

HANK: “Tell me about it.”
ANDY: “No, I’m not going to tell you about until you say you’re in and once you say it there’s no way out.”
HANK: “I’m in.”
ANDY: “Let me see your hands.”
ANDY: “Just say it again I’m in.”
HANK: “What’re you talking about?”

ANDY: “Just say it again I’m in.”
HANK: “I’m in!”
ANDY: “I just wanted to see if you were pulling any of that chicken-shit baby stuff like when we were kids, you know? It doesn’t count if I have my fingers crossed.

Script writer Kelly Masterson hasn’t done much sreenwriting (he did write the upcoming Snowpiercer) but this is a near perfect screenplay. Andy’s tendency to infantilise his brother’s inclinations – and Hank’s tendency to play into this – is being set up in the most benign of ways.

HANK: “I’m in. What’re we doing? And when?”
ANDY: “It’s a jewellery store. Does this ring a bell?”
HANK: “No.”
ANDY: “What if I tell you it’s got a Foot Locker on one side and a Claire’s Accessories on the other.”

And, Hank gets it.

...more below on this scene and another analogous scene between the two brothers....

As Andy rattles off the particulars the moment turns into a showcase for Hawke. Just watch the way his face externalises his feelings. He’s disgusted and intrigued, unable to agree wholeheartedly to this but desperately in need of the money.

Hoffman is almost tonelessly drawling on about the store, and the audience is not even sure what’s up as yet.

ANDY: “Yeah, that’s right. You got it. Now listen. We don’t want Tiffany’s. We want a Mom and Pop operation in a busy place, on a Saturday where the week’s takes go in the safe. We both worked there. We know the safe combinations. We know the burglar alarm signals. We know where everything is. I figure between the week’s take, the jewellery and the cases, the vault, there’s a $500,000 haul. I figure probably six. That dumb old lady that works there, she’s alone until noon. She’s not going to be a problem.”

HANK: “Andy.”
ANDY: “Yeah?”
HANK: “That’s Mom and Dad’s store.”

ANDY: “That’s what I said. A Mom and Pop operation.”
(Hoffman's expression there, though.)

HANK: “You can’t do that.”

ANDY: “Yeah we can, think about it. It’s perfect. It’s perfect. In and out in a minute. Insurance takes care of Mom and Dad so they’re not hurt, right? No one’s gonna give a shit. After a week the cops will put it in the back of a filing cabinet.”

HANK: “Jesus, Andy! I….why did you even want me in on this?”
ANDY: “Well, it’ll solve everything for both of us.”

HANK: “What has to be solved for you?”

Later in the movie, an extension of this scene, Andy explains why he cannot be the one to carry out the investigation and it's a typically poor reason except, Hank, forever the child cannot think to dig holes in anything Andy says.

ANDY: “Same as you. I need money. I’m going to start over again.”
HANK: “What do you mean?”
ANDY: “I mean --- what the fuck kind of…? It’s none of your business. I just want out. I just want to – that’s all. I’m getting out, I want to help my little brother. Come on.”
The way he turns this into an extension of good will to his brother, is genius and Hoffman is so good here never playing Andy's darker sides here but just a gregarious representation of a cajoling older brother.

HANK: “Yeah. No, I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think I can.”

Even though Hank's words say no, Andy knows he's still sitting in that chair.

ANDY: “Oh, yeah you can. Yeah, you can.”
HANK: “I just –”
ANDY: “That’s $2000. It’s an advance. See what just that much does for you. And, imagine the rest”

And, just like that, Hank has been bought.

It’s that final shot that marks this scene for me, though. The entire scene has developed on the assumption that these brothers are on equal footing but this final shot emphasises how untrue this is.
Andy on the table, and Hank in the chair and the younger brother turns to look at the older one in such a pronounced indication of the power dynamics at play. It becomes even more intriguing to consider that shot above against the one immediately below.
Andy was wrong. Things have not been safe, someone did get hurt and now there mother is on her deathbed and Hank is culpable. Hank, still too much of a boy next to his brother never gave any thought to Andy casting all the groundwork for the operation on him. And Andy, so annoyed with the way things have turned out is furious. But this is a tale, not just of things going wrong but men unable to deal with their emotions. We presumptively assume that open Hank is more like his emotions because a later conversation between father and son (Hoffman and Finney) reveals how both are unable t express themselves here. This forthcoming scene utilises only two angles unfolding so unnaturally that the tension is even more taut. Hank can barely keep it together, Andy is trying not to loose his temper (but those balled fists give him away.)

ANDY: “Who else knows?”
HANK: “Nobody.”
ANDY: “You didn’t tell anyone?”
HANK: “No.”
ANDY: “No one saw you talking with Bobby?”
HANK: “No.”
ANDY: “All right. Nobody saw you here?”
HANK: “No, come on. It was crowded, it was busy. No, no.”
ANDY: “Did he rent the car with you?”
HANK: “Did he what?”
ANDY: “Did he rent the fucking car with you?”
HANK: “No, no, no.”
ANDY: “All right, did you…You picked him up.”
HANK: “Yeah, at his house.”
ANDY: “Did anybody see you there? At his house? Did anyone see you at his house”
HANK: “No, no.”
ANDY: “Nobody saw you at his house?”
HANK: “No.”
ANDY: “Did you clean the car? Did you wipe the car down? Did you wipe the floor?”
HANK: “Totally, yeah. I totally, totally”
ANDY: “Did you leave anything in the car?”
HANK: “No, of course not. ”

ANDY: “We’re probably okay. If they don’t connect the car to us, we’re probably okay.”
HANK: “That’s what I was thinking.”

Considering the earlier scenes it’s striking how much this scene is just about Andy interrogating and Hank just responding. Any illusion of equality is absent. I love this shot, for example, which could either be a benign pat to calm Hank or the beginning of a strangulation.
ANDY: “Go back to work, totally normal.”
HANK: “Okay.”

HANK: “I’m so sorry, Andy. I’m so sorry. I don’t think I can get through this.”
ANDY: “Shut up.”
HANK: “I loved her so much.”
ANDY: “Just shut the fuck up”
ANDY: “If he had to take somebody out why couldn’t it have been him?”

We wonder at first who the “him” could be. It’s only later we realise Andy wished it was his father who had died. And even with things completely gone to shit, the scene, like the first ends up Andy in a place of visual superiority to Hank and Hank looking upwards.
Yet again, unable to look within for direction but forced to look to his brother. That glance upwards is almost a visual manifestation of Hank's entire agenda. Always looking to Andy for direction and purpose, even the woman he's sleeping is someone marked by her connection to his brother (Andy's wife.)

In a film of so many actors at the top of their game, it's especially painful watching Before the Devil Knows You're Dead knowing that we'll never see Hoffman age into the type of actor that Finney is - playing a tortured father. He had so much more to give us, but at least we were lucky to get some great ones before he left us.

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