In the period just after WW2, the staple of legitimate theater in the United
States was "the dysfunctional family drama which shows the pain lurking behind
the facade of post-war prosperity." Arthur Miller won a Pulitzer Prize for A
Death of a Salesman in 1949, and Eugene O'Neill won the same prize posthumously
for A Long Day's Journey into Night in 1957 (which was actually written in 1941). The major plays of Tennessee
Williams come from this same period. This sort of play seemed to represent about
100% of the "serious" content of television when I was a kid, in the form of
ensemble drama shows like Kraft Television Theater, The Alcoa Hour, The United
States Steel Hour, Studio One, and Playhouse 90. These dramas always confused me
because the chronically depressed people in these plays never acted
anything like any adults I had ever met. I didn't know anyone who made flowery,
tearful speeches about how they should have been better fathers or sons or
whatever. As a child I took away a lesson from the confusion I felt: it must be the
artist's responsibility to present the other side of life that we never
experience on our own. Like many of our childhood illusions, this one was
eventually crushed. After having lived in a half dozen different countries and
four different states in the USA, and having worked in about fifty different
countries in my life; after having spend six decades in contact with people on
all parts of the spectra of wealth and education; and after having known real
CEOs and Senators and junkies and hookers and mobsters, I have yet to meet anyone who acts like the
unsmiling characters in those plays and teleplays. My jaded conclusion is that
the artist's real responsibility in those days was to spew out insincere, high-falutin'
And THAT I understand. I took an undergraduate degree in English
Literature, after all, a field which is planted exclusively with the seeds of insincere
high-falutin' bullshit, the sort of analysis that sounds profound and original but is really
indefensible blather disguised by enough literary tropes to make it
ambiguous and confusing enough that it can't really be refuted, even in the
unlikely case that somebody actually figures out what it is supposed to mean. I have done my
own fair share of such spewing over the years, and consider myself fairly good
at it, and able to recognize it when I see it.
Well, here it is. Right here in
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead was directed by Sidney Lumet,
who cut his directorial teeth on the TV shows I mentioned above and others like
them in the early fifties. There is really no difference between this film and
one of those shows except that this decade is different from the fifties. There
are more people doing drugs and carrying guns these days than back then, so this
new improved version of Death of a Salesman has the Lomans packing heat and
"But ... but ... I thought it was supposed to be a thriller."
Yeah, that's what I thought before I watched it, but it is not. Not really. It
is a Playhouse 90 drama about dysfunctional father-son relationships. In order
to develop its themes it uses a bungled crime, and there are some other elements
you might find in a thriller, but there are no real twists and turns to
navigate. The film begins with the bungled robbery. That is followed by a series
of flashbacks in which we discover almost immediately that two brothers
planned to rob their parents' suburban jewelry store on a Saturday morning.
Flawless idea. They know where everything is. They know what time the store
opens on Saturday, and that the old lady who works the weekend shift presents no
threat. They plan to carry only a toy gun, so nobody can get hurt, not even
accidentally. They know that the insurance company will reimburse the full value
of the store's loss.
Yes, they have a great idea. Unfortunately, they don't
know how to pull off crimes. How many of us would? They rent a getaway car with a real license and credit
card. They talk to a fence about the stolen goods before they even have the
jewels in their possession. They bring in a professional bad-ass to accompany
the younger brother on the actual robbery, and the dim-witted, cowardly younger
brother picks the guy up at his house, so that his wife sees them both head off
to commit crimes together. The bad-ass brings a real gun. The woman who was
supposed to work the shift has called in sick and the boys' mother is on duty.
The younger brother is too much of a chickenshit to go in the store for the
robbery, so the bad-ass ends up going it alone, unaware that he's robbing his
partner's mom. Mom turns out to be a lot more courageous than the weekend
fill-in lady, and everything that could go wrong does go wrong ...
spoiling the film for you? Not at all. That all happens right away. It's not the
plot. It's the set-up. The only real plot elements this film has in common with
a thriller involve the fact that the police don't know of the brothers' involvement. For all
they know, the bad-ass tried to rob mom, and it didn't work out. But the wheels
of justice do grind. The boys have left behind a messy trail. The wife of the
bad-ass knows the score. The fence knows the score.
And then the rest of the movie is Death of a Salesman. Hands wring. Brothers
abuse brothers. Fathers abuse sons. Sons hate fathers. Both brothers are having
sex with the same woman, and one of them is married to her. The father begins to
realize what happened in the robbery. All the while, people make ever more
flowery and depressing speeches. Things start to close in on the brothers. As
the noose becomes ever tighter, their desperation is exacerbated by the fact
that the older brother is also a junkie and also has both his company and the IRS closing in on him
for embezzlement, while the panic-stricken younger brother is a weak person in
general and ... well ... not the brightest bulb on the tree. The scenario gets
ever more depressing until the audience realizes that it is only a matter of
time until some grandiose larger-than-life tragedy must occur.
As I said earlier, imagine Willy Loman packin' heat.
If I were to get a
magic wish list with this film, it would be to make some of the melodrama go
away. Do they have to check off the entire litany of possible soap opera plots?
The brothers sleep with the same woman. They both have dysfunctional families of
their own. One is embezzling from his firm, the other is far behind on his child
support. The older brother is a junkie, maybe a closeted homosexual as well.
They committed matricide (they planned a crime which resulted in the death of
their mother, which would be treated as a homicide). The mother is on life
support and the father has to decide whether to pull the plug. The older
brother's comment on the death of his mother is, "If only it had been him (his
dad) instead." The parents preferred one of the sons. And so forth. After a
while it felt like piling on.
And I haven't even spoiled the larger-than-life
family tragedies at the end.
I only have one question. How could it be that
none of the main characters have AIDS? I mean there are three main characters in
the play, and one of them is a junkie, possibly a homosexual. Based on
screenwriting standards for modern dramas, that must create about a 99%
likelihood that one of the three, most likely the older brother, would have
AIDS. What happened? You just know the absence of AIDS will cause this film to
lose some Oscar nominations to appropriate AIDS-based drama.
Is it a good
film? Yes, I suppose so. Everybody else seems to think so, so I guess I just
don't really like Arthur Miller or Eugene O'Neill plays. It received 88%
positive reviews and is scored high at IMDb. But it's certainly not a good
thriller. There are times when the pace drags down to a crawl, which would be
fatal for a thriller, but not for a stagy morality play about a dysfunctional
family. It is quite good in the sense that it is effective at dragging the
audience through the emotional wringer with the wimpy younger brother.
He's not only afraid the cops will catch him, but he's afraid of the bad-ass's
wife, his brother, and his father. And yet, though he is feckless and a complete
wimp, he is the only character we can really sympathize with because he is the
only one who seems to know the difference between right and wrong and, even if
he does not always choose the right means, he usually has a good-hearted end in
mind. So we feel his panic in our own throats as the noose tightens. The ability
to transmit his tension to the audience is