Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sidney Lumet's Perfect Tragedy

I finally got around to watching Sidney Lumet's critically-acclaimed 2007 film Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Of course, Lumet really is one of the best of American directors, especially adept at manufacturing and sustaining cinematic tension, as is obvious from many of his previous films like 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict, and Network. (He also directed one of my all-time favorite musicals, The Wiz.) Lumet is a Philaldelphian by birth-- his name is pronounced "loo-MET" not "loo-MAY"--and I've often said that his films seem to ooze a kind of "Philadelphia" sensibility, much in the same way that Spike Lee's films ooze "Brooklyn." Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is part heist film, part dysfunctional family drama, part bildungsroman, part mystery. It stars one of my favorite actors, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and one of my least favorite actors, Ethan Hawke, with supporting performances by veteran thespian Albert Finney and the vulnerable-in-a-smoking-hot-way Marisa Tomei.

It's a little hard to write about this film without revealing "spoilers" because the story is intricate, non-linear, and chock-full of plot twists... so I'll try to proceed carefully. What really impressed me about Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, though, was that it is almost a perfectly composed "tragedy" in the Aristotelian sense. Now, to a certain extent, I don't think one would have to know much about Aristotle to recognize the similarities between Lumet's film and Greek tragedies. The film centers around brother/brother and father/son conflicts (which are both sexually-charged and potentially murderous). The familial crises depicted in the film are catalyzed by individuals' unreflective and unchecked desire for money, power, and recognition. The protagonists are all basically sympathetic, even if flawed, and eminently resilient, even if weak. Like Oedipus, they do not know themselves, and they are crushed under the weight of self-knowledge when it comes to them. Like Antigone, they do not rule their worlds, and they suffer for their efforts at trying to impose an alternative Law on the world around them. As in Greek tragedies, the "physical" violence upon which the story turns is only accidental. What the audience comes to understand, really, is that the true motor of the plot and all of its players is psychic violence, for which the only truly adequate salve is exile or death.

I won't bore you with all of the ways in which Before the Devil Knows You're Dead dramatically elaborates the core themes of Aristotle's Poetics (mimesis, catharsis, peripeteia, anagnorisis, hamartia), but I do want to recommend it as an excellent teaching tool for illustrating the technical terms in that text. In the past, I showed the film V for Vendetta when I taught Aristotle's Poetics because it was so easy to identify Aristotle's elements of tragedy in that film, but now I'm convinced that Lumet does it better. (Fair warning, though: the film begins with an extremely graphic sex scene-- between Hoffman and Tomei no less!-- so there may be potential problems with showing it in the classroom.) Lumet has always been a connoisseur of family dysfunction-- the classic mise en scene for tragedy-- but he is arguably unrivalled in his skill for portraying, with equal measures of honesty and compassion, all of the mean and petty things we do to one another.

As I've suggested on this blog many times before (much to the chagrin of Booga Face and Chet), I think contemporary films are about the closest art form we have to ancient Greek tragedy in the following sense: part of the function of Greek tragedies was to serve as a mirror to the community's collective values, as well as a vehicle by which moral instruction could be imparted to the community. This is why Aristotle insisted that "good" tragedies must reflect the plight of a human being in such a way that, no matter how pitiful or fearful the protagonists' station in life, the audience can see their own humanity, their own finitude and weakness, in the actions and reactions of an other. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead excels in just this sort of representation.


CBR said...

This was the best movie of 2007 by far.

Chet said...

i was wanting to see that. i am glad to hear it was so provocative