Beyond the Multiplex

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke lead the outstanding cast of the overheated "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead." Plus: Jimmy Carter charms. Anthony Hopkins confounds.

Published October 25, 2007 11:00AM (EDT)

"I don't add up. I am not the sum of my parts," muses the corpulent, corrupt businessman as he kicks back -- which in his case means sprawling on the sofa in the apartment of a mean-spirited transvestite who has shot him up with heroin. This self-reflective fellow, slick as frozen snot and guilty of planning a horribly bungled crime, is Andy, the antihero played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Sidney Lumet's film "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead," but his self-diagnosis can serve as our mantra in this week's survey of independent film.

Alongside Lumet's overheated New York crime melodrama, which itself doesn't quite add up, we have documentary portraits of two elusive, gifted, generous and peculiar public figures. That's about the best I can do in making Jimmy Carter and David Lynch seem similar in any way, except to add that each is the subject of a partly revealing, partly hagiographic and fascinating film. Jonathan Demme's Carter documentary is a textured study of a complicated figure in motion, and a mesmerizing glance inside the media-publicity machine. (Not to mention that for all his failures as a politician, Jimmy Carter is a genuine hero of our time.) The subject of "Lynch" is every bit as intriguing, but the film itself is too piecemeal and worshipful to reach beyond a core fan base.

Speaking of peculiar public figures in the latter stages of an illustrious career, Anthony Hopkins has directed a movie. At least, I guess it's a movie: It's around the right length, I watched it as images projected on a screen and I seem to recall actors speaking dialogue in it, at least occasionally. As to what else to say about Hopkins' hallucinatory "Slipstream" -- does it actually exist or did I imagine it? Is Hopkins batshit-crazy, or am I? -- I can only express bafflement.

Utterly unrelated to all of the above comes English director Simon Rumley's wrenching and claustrophobic "The Living and the Dead," a combination of the crumbling-old-house and protagonist-gone-mad genres that utterly lacks ghosts or monsters but might be an indie-horror classic of the future. Dammit, I'm just going to keep beating the drum for these low-budget horror flicks until the rotting zombies rip it from my hands! Also opening this week, but uncovered here: "Saw IV," in which Machiavellian torture-meister Jigsaw is dead but still appears in the film, or whatever; Ron Livingston and Melissa George in the disability-themed drama "Music Within"; Eduardo Verástegui and Tammy Blanchard as passing Manhattan strangers, à la "Once," in "Bella"; the Spanish family drama "Dark Blue Almost Black; and "Mr. Untouchable," an acclaimed doc about legendary Harlem godfather Nicky Barnes (not exactly the character Denzel Washington plays in Ridley Scott's forthcoming "American Gangster," but same general idea).

Also, a little shameless pluggery: Have you been watching the TV version of "Beyond the Multiplex," a little series of two- to three-minute interstitials starring yours truly, Stephanie Zacharek and IFC's adorable Matt Singer that's been running on IFC and Salon? Why, of course you have.

"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead": Crooked men going in straight lines
With a dynamite cast, a fatalistic crime-thriller plot that dabbles in Greek tragedy and the book of Genesis, and a venerable Hollywood legend at the helm, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" is one of the season's most eagerly anticipated films. Or so I'm told. Here's what 83-year-old Sidney Lumet's 45th feature film (by my approximate count) actually is: a Rorschach test for filmgoers. What you see in it says more about you than it says about Lumet and his straightforward, throwback-style entertainment, which is richly played and dazzlingly blinged up with sex and drugs, but virtually devoid of human insight or narrative ambition.

Kelly Masterson's script artfully unfolds its dire fable of two brothers in need of cash, debauched New York real-estate broker Andy (Hoffman) and his deadbeat sibling Hank (Ethan Hawke), whose scheme to commit the perfect crime -- by ripping off their own family's suburban jewelry store -- goes stupidly and gruesomely awry. The film's momentum largely depends on its Tarantino-style hopscotching through time and space: We see Hank and his low-life Brooklyn buddy Bobby (a nice performance, in a caricature role, by Brian F. O'Byrne) botch the heist -- then we fly backward a few days, to find out how Andy and Hank hatched this crackpot idea to begin with.

Lumet frequently shows us the same scene in different ways from different characters' perspectives, so we see the robbery and subsequent disaster first from the perspective of a jewelry-store employee who arrives to open the store, and then, much later, from Hank's as he waits for Bobby in the car and realizes it's all gone wrong. (We only get the opening scene once, and that's OK, since it involves Hoffman and Marisa Tomei going at it butt-naked, with vigorous sound effects, in a Rio hotel room.) There's no question that we understand the story better each time through, even if a lot of what we learn are just the details of this family's depravity: Andy's doing massive amounts of drugs, largely on the sofa of the aforementioned transvestite, and embezzling money from his company; Hank owes a ton of child support to his bitchy ex-wife; Andy's wife, Gina (Tomei), makes weekly afternoon-delight visits to Hank's apartment. (Lumet spares no opportunity to display Tomei in her lacy underthings, or less than that.)

This cut-up storytelling feels energetic, for a while, and the moment-to-moment acting by Lumet's outstanding ensemble -- also featuring Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris as Andy and Hank's parents -- is so strong that you might not notice the film starting to wheeze and creak, like an old steam engine started up for the tourists. In almost every scene, Hoffman gives you something, a weird little Cheshire-cat smile, or the way Andy obsessively pats his pockets, that suggests the character's deep reservoir of misanthropy and self-hatred. I'm not a huge fan of Hawke's sincere, hangdog act, but even though Hank is an incompetent coward, he gives the viewer someone to latch onto who's not wholly repulsive. And my favorite acting moment in the movie is a bit of irrelevant business, when Tomei's Gina, as she's trying to leave Andy, wiggles her suitcases girlishly to the door, clearly astonished that he's not helping her.

I can only presume that many viewers will like "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" because it relies, beneath its bells and whistles, its mainlining and nudity and transgender hookers, on old-school, point-to-point storytelling drawn from Lumet's apprentice years in 1950s television. If you dislike the so-called ironic tone of much independent film, or the arch dialogue and moral murk of 21st-century TV drama, I can assure you that this movie's artificial universe is nothing like those. "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" sometimes feels like acting class: Every character in every scene is going in a straight line, from his motivation to his objective, and crashing into another character's straight line along the way. Andy wants to lure Hank into his moronic scheme, and Hank has a Pavlovian response to money. Hank's ex-wife wants her goddamn money; Hank just wants a little goddamn human understanding (since he has no money). Charles (Finney's patriarch) wants some goddamn justice for the horror inflicted on his family, but nobody on the goddamn police force works for a living anymore, goddamn it.

It's one thing to say you want to channel the fatalistic force of Euripidean and Sophoclean tragedy, or the primordial tale of Cain and Abel, into a contemporary crime drama. It's quite another thing to pull it off. For me at least, the evident strengths and laudable intentions of "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" (and even the appeal of Marisa Tomei in her undies) are overwhelmed by an implausible plot verging on unintentional comedy and a panoply of Noo Yawk dirt-bag supporting characters who might've seemed awkward on a 1993 episode of "NYPD Blue." In an era that's brought us the dense dialogue and ambiguous characterizations of "The Wire" and "The Sopranos," this movie (like almost all Lumet films, truth be told) has the subtlety and moral complexity of a demolition derby. By the time the final scene arrived -- in which someone commits yet another terrible crime, to finalize this family's self-immolation -- I just didn't want to hear those crashing sounds anymore.

"Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" opens Oct. 26 in New York, Los Angeles and other major cities, with wider release to follow.

"Jimmy Carter Man From Plains": Israel, Palestine and New Orleans -- the 39th president and the road not taken
I've sat through Jonathan Demme's Jimmy Carter documentary twice now -- Sony Pictures Classics has sternly insisted to journalists that its title contains no punctuation -- and I'm still not quite sure why it's so compelling. I think this movie's appeal is overdetermined, as we used to say in sophomore Marxist-theory class, meaning that it derives from so many sources you can't keep track of them all. If "Jimmy Carter Man From Plains" sometimes feels like the portrait of a saint, it also reminds us that saints are strange and private people pursuing a personal compact with an invisible deity, in solitude and often in sadness.

First and most obviously, Demme's insider, vérité-style portrait of the 39th president, as he tours the country in late 2006 and early 2007 to support his controversial book "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid," offers an implicit contrast between Carter and the current holder of his former job. In just four years in office, while plagued by an economic recession and the Iranian hostage crisis (a combination that spelled his personal political doom), Carter brought Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin together at Camp David for a world-televised hug that promised to reshape the Middle East for generations. George W. Bush has done his part to reshape the Middle East for generations too (and might not be done yet), and perhaps we can all agree that the current direction looks a little different.

Now in his early 80s, Carter appears to have slowed only slightly in his three decades since leaving politics. He's a perfectionist, a precise thinker and speaker who seems almost driven by a desire to be more driven than those around him. He and Rosalynn Carter still live in a strikingly modest house in Plains, Ga. (population 635), and he'll still preach an occasional sermon at the Baptist church when they're in town. But his working life largely consists of endless airplane journeys, hotel conference rooms, radio interviews and lunches with local honchos (for which he is always meticulously prepared). He swims in hotel pools before dawn. He talks to his wife daily while on the road, often in limousines on someone else's cellphone (he doesn't seem to carry one), and always listens calmly to her advice and then tells her he loves her. (They read the Bible together every night; if they're physically apart, they read the same verses.)

There can be absolutely no doubt about Carter's principles and his humanitarian accomplishments -- has ever been a president whose post-White House career was so much more illustrious than his time in office? -- and perhaps it speaks well of him that he's a guarded and measured individual who seems poorly suited to political glad-handing. As Demme captures Carter, in private as so calm he's almost affectless, but he delivers a schoolmasterly admonishment to a couple of "obnoxious" radio jocks who haven't read his book. Every so often he rises above his evident discomfort to don a celebrity persona, swapping jokes about marriage with Jay Leno or telling sentimental family stories for his "bosses" over lunch in the Simon & Schuster boardroom.

On the other hand, Carter seems largely unprepared for the kerfuffle that erupted over his use of the word "apartheid" to describe life in the Palestinian territories -- it's perfectly clear that he doesn't mean Israel proper -- which is surprising for someone with his connections and his grasp of the issue. His thin-skinned response to criticism and his refusal to debate Alan Dershowitz and other defenders of Israel only inflamed the situation and extended the media's fascination with what was, at bottom, a matter of semantics in a generally even-handed book. (When speaking to Israeli TV, Carter places the onus for peace on the occupiers; when addressing Al-Jazeera, he is careful to say that all Palestinian acts of terrorism must end before Israel will cede territory.)

Demme's film never directly suggests that Carter milked the controversy deliberately, once it had blown up, but after all he retains some political instincts. (You may be sure his wife does, at any rate.) We watch him going from Terry Gross to Wolf Blitzer to Larry King to Tavis Smiley, and while deflecting incoming fire at each stop, he addresses the widespread American incomprehension of the Palestinian issue and the ways pro-Israeli forces distort media coverage and political debate. His address to a packed house at predominantly Jewish Brandeis University, with a few dozen hostile protesters yelling outside, is both high drama and grand political oratory -- maybe he had to get himself in hot water to make that speech. We once had this guy for a president? Even the most dumbass country gets lucky once in a while, by accident.

"Jimmy Carter Man From Plains" opens Oct. 26 in New York, Los Angeles and other major cities, with wider national release to follow.

Fast forward: Anthony Hopkins disappears into "Slipstream"; "Lynch" offers smoke, mirrors, not much light; trapped with "The Living and the Dead"
I could expend many words trying to explain the plot of Anthony Hopkins' film "Slipstream" to you, but that would be even more boring than telling you my dreams, because I'd be telling you someone else's dreams. Nominally, "Slipstream" is about a man named Felix Bonhoeffer (played by Hopkins) who's writing a noirish Hollywood thriller but finds the characters and plot invading his life, or maybe vice versa. It's apparently not an accident that he shares his last name with a leader of the anti-Nazi German resistance, because we keep seeing images of Hitler (and also images of Richard Nixon, whom Hopkins once played).

Even those sentences suggest a coherence that absolutely does not exist in "Slipstream." The film has moments of goofy delight, some pseudo-David Lynch spookery and a couple of comic supporting turns, most notably John Turturro's (as an abrasively stupid Weinstein-esque studio mogul) and Christopher Kennedy Lawford's -- yes, his parents are who you think they are -- as a garrulous cinematographer. Stella Arroyave, who is Hopkins' wife and who produced the picture and stars in it, turns out to be an agreeably wry screen presence.

Beyond that, you're talking shots of desert scenery and the night sky (very pretty, by cinematographer Dante Spinotti), a lot of psychic-meltdown sequences in which scenes and bits of dialogue repeat over and over again, a shootout on a Los Angeles freeway, some ranting and raving by Christian Slater in a fedora hat (what else is new?), and a talking spider or two. No, really. I thought the talking spider was kind of cool, but the movie as a whole is nonsense. I'm glad that Hopkins has apparently been using the bland, middlebrow stage of his acting career to experiment with massive doses of psychotropic chemicals and open the doors of perception and all that. Next time, maybe he'll just write a manifesto. (Opens Oct. 26 in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.)

Maybe "Slipstream" just proves that making semi-comprehensible dream-based films is not as easy as it looks. The documentary "Lynch" explores the master of this particular school of cinema as he prepares to shoot "Inland Empire," his improvisational venture into hi-def digital video, which was widely ignored by viewers last year. Made by a collective of David Lynch acolytes known as blackANDwhite, "Lynch" offers a fascinating view of Lynch's irascible personality (and insatiable appetite for coffee and cigarettes), and captures him discussing his formative years in Idaho and Philadelphia, as well as his 30-year involvement with Transcendental Meditation. I suppose you could say that Lynch's creative process also comes into clearer focus -- in this case, he was making the shit up as he went along, and it shows, too. (Opens Oct. 26 at IFC Center in New York.)

Simon Rumley's "The Living and the Dead" begins as a rigorous study of a crumbling family in one of those crumbling English country houses. Lord Brocklebank (Roger Lloyd-Pack) has a sickly wife (Kate Fahy) and a twitchy adult son named James (Leo Bill) who seems to be schizophrenic, epileptic, autistic and devoted to wearing a suit that fit him snugly at age 15. Bill's performance as a damaged young man who desperately wants to please his parents is not delicate and may not be politically acceptable to all viewers, but it's an uncanny and powerful one. When Brocklebank goes away on business and mom's nurse fails to show, James blows a gasket and the movie does too. Rumley's realism and restraint abruptly vanishes, plunging James and the viewer into a jittery, nightmarish maelstrom of sound and image meant to capture his permanently altered state. "The Living and the Dead" is not an easy movie to sit through, and its darkness may be a little mannered, but it's an elegant construction with real emotions buried deep inside. (Now playing at the Pioneer Theater in New York.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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